Research News

Overweight women lose in the labor market: Vanderbilt study

Overweight women are more likely to work in lower-paying and more physically demanding jobs; less likely to get higher-wage positions that include interaction with the public; and make less money in either case compared to average size women and all men, according to a new Vanderbilt study.

“[rquote]Starting when a woman becomes overweight, she is increasingly less likely to work in a personal interaction or personal communication occupation.[/rquote] And the heaviest women in the labor market are the least likely individuals to work in personal interaction occupations,” says Jennifer Shinall, assistant professor of law at Vanderbilt Law School and author of “Occupational Characteristics and the Obesity Wage Penalty.”

More weight = More physical jobs

But the reverse is true for overweight and obese women when it comes to physically strenuous jobs.

“As a woman becomes heavier she is actually more likely to work in a physical activity occupation. So morbidly obese women are the most likely to work in a physically demanding occupation,” says Shinall.

Shinall labels personal interaction jobs as those where the employee works closely with the customer, such as a salesperson, customer service representative or receptionist. Physically demanding positions are healthcare support (nurse’s aides or home health aides), healthcare practitioners (such as registered nurses), food preparation and childcare.

Female wage penalty

Shinall found that obese women are penalized in the labor market because of lower demand in the marketplace, but heavier men do not encounter the same penalty.

“[lquote]No matter what the type of occupation, obese men seem to do just as well as average-size men.[/lquote] They make just as much as non-obese men and make just as much money in both personal interaction occupations and physical occupations. But we see the opposite pattern for women,” says Shinall.

Obese wage penalty

For the heavier women who get a job interacting with customers, there is still a price to pay.

“A morbidly obese woman working in an occupation with an emphasis on personal interaction will earn almost 5 percent less than a normal-weight woman working in an occupation with exactly the same emphasis,” Shinall says. Even after taking differences in education and socioeconomic status into account, there seems to be no scenario where being overweight becomes an advantage for a woman.

Legal impact

From a legal perspective, there has been a lot of discussion on whether an obese individual is considered disabled in regards to the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Shinall suggests that when it comes to discrimination lawsuits, the ADA may not be the correct avenue since obese women are actually filling strenuous physical labor jobs.

“[rquote]What seems to be going on in the labor market may be more of a sex discrimination issue that could be tied to Title VII.”[/rquote]

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits sex discrimination in employment.

Shinall, whose paper is under review for publication, used matched data from the Current Population Survey, American Time Use Survey’s Eating and Health Module (ATUS EHM) and the Occupational Information Network (O*NET) for her research.

Shinall teaches Employment Discrimination Law, Labor Markets and Human Resources, and the Ph.D. Workshop for the Ph.D. Program in Law and Economics at Vanderbilt Law School.