Women living with obesity face wage penalty of up to 13 per cent, research shows

Report also finds overweight female workers are less likely to be hired or promoted and urges employers to address the issue in their inclusion policies

Obesity discrimination is still “rife” in the workplace, a report has found, with overweight women in particularly facing wage penalties and other barriers in their careers.

The report, by the Institute for Employment Studies (IES), found women living with obesity suffered a wage penalty of up to 13 per cent when compared to other women, adding up to £10bn a year in lost wages across the workforce.

As well as this wage penalty, women living with obesity faced other barriers at work, including lower hiring success, fewer opportunities for promotion and a higher likelihood of being dismissed.

This workplace stigma happened at every stage of the employment journey, starting with recruitment, the report said, and often stemmed from employers not understanding the causes of obesity and wrongly believing the stereotypical views that those living with obesity are lazy, less conscientious or less competent.

By contrast, the report said men who were living with obesity experienced a small wage premium compared to other men, and only faced financial penalties for being clinically underweight.

Stephen Bevan, one of the report’s co-authors, said the obesity wage penalty could not be explained by differences in health, qualifications or job performance, which “strongly suggests that discrimination remains a major factor”.

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“Our research shows that the stigma of living with obesity is still affecting women in UK workplaces and in the so-called ‘aesthetic labour market’ for service sector jobs,” he said.

Stigma also created wellbeing problems for those living with obesity, the report said. The potential lack of social support from managers and colleagues could result in increased stresses, leading those living with obesity to take up maladaptive coping responses – including increased alcohol consumption.

Employees living with obesity also reported having to make adjustments to the way they dressed and behaved to reduce weight-based stigma at work.

Commenting on the report’s findings, Sarah Le Brocq, director of Obesity UK, said obesity appeared to be “one of the last acceptable forms of discrimination”. “Just because someone lives in a larger body, doesn’t mean they are less intelligent, efficient or capable of doing their job,” she said.

“I’m hoping the government and society will see the findings of this report and know we need to stop this, that there needs to be more support for people living with obesity and that things need to change.” 

In its report, IES recommended employers include obesity in their inclusion and diversity policies – noting that it is a risk factor for many health conditions that fall under the Equality Act. Employees should also recognise that the stigma around obesity could be inhibiting employees disclosing work-limiting health problems that may entitle them to support or adjustments, or prevent staff who receive inappropriate or hurtful comments from colleagues or customers from reporting such behaviour.

It also urged employers to ensure that any dress codes avoided provisions that could be interpreted as direct or indirect discrimination against employees living with obesity. “This is especially, but not exclusively, relevant to female employees in customer-facing roles, where research suggests that such discrimination is most common,” it said.