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New faculty: Shinall explores link between weight and workplace discrimination

by Oct. 8, 2014, 8:55 AM

Jennifer Shinall, assistant professor of law (John Russell/Vanderbilt)
Jennifer Shinall, assistant professor of law (John Russell/Vanderbilt)

Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act prohibits discrimination by employers in five areas: race, color, religion, sex and national origin. What Jennifer Shinall wants to know—should weight become the sixth?

Shinall, the law school’s newest assistant professor, is also the first graduate of Vanderbilt’s Ph.D. Program in Law and Economics. Her research focuses on discrimination in labor markets, specifically against people who are obese, and how Title VII and the Americans with Disabilities Act may confront that. She will be teaching Employment Discrimination to second- and third-year law students.

After graduating from Vanderbilt, she clerked for Judge John Tinder of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit, then returned to Vanderbilt as a postdoctoral researcher.

Shinall has long been interested in job-related discrimination—her undergraduate thesis was on labor market discrimination in sugar plantations—and the obesity focus comes from personal experience. Growing up as a dancer, she was very conscious of how dancers’ worth rises as their weight falls.

“The data is highly suggestive of job discrimination against obese individuals, especially against obese women,” she said. “The next step is to see how the law will deal with this apparent discrimination given the rising rates of obesity across the country. So far the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has settled two ADA cases on behalf of obese individuals. It remains to be seen how federal appellate courts will view obese individuals under current anti-discrimination laws and whether legislators will see a need for additional protections against weight discrimination in the future.”

Her legal degree brings the perspective of law into her research, and her economics doctorate provides the methods and structure to dig into the data and determine what’s really going on. “I love the subject of law, but my heart is really in academic research,” she said. “Economists use very sophisticated empirical tools in their research, but they don’t always ask the questions that lawyers care about. I use these same empirical tools, but I approach my research from the perspective of a lawyer.”

Shinall is intense. While earning her undergraduate degree at Harvard, she worked as an economics tutor and grader. At Vanderbilt, she booked (received the top grade) in four of her first-year law school classes while serving as a teaching assistant in an undergraduate economics course. Her intensity is matched by her husband, Ricky, who is a sixth-year surgery resident and a Ph.D. candidate in religion at Vanderbilt.

During graduate school, Shinall took up yoga to decompress. She is now a certified teacher, and you’ll find her leading four vinyasa classes a week at studios in town. “It’s a great outlet for me,” she said. “So much of my work is sitting, interpreting data. It’s good to get up and do something physical.”

View the complete list of new university faculty for 2014-15.

View the complete list of new medical faculty for 2014.

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