Many previous studies have shown that employers generally tend to choose employees who are healthy and slim. This bias is more prevalent regarding women, and consequentially, obese women are usually unemployed. A recent study in Iceland evaluated the relationship between body weight and employment with a specific focus on gender. This study indicates that, “despite apparently lesser gender discrimination in Iceland than elsewhere, the bias against excess weight and obesity remains gender-based, showing a slightly negative relationship between weight and the employment rate of women, whereas a slightly positive relationship was found for men.”
Prevalence of obesity is on the rise in most of the western countries. Most of the research in European countries and in the United States have shown that this rise in obesity is associated with a corresponding rise in unemployment. These studies have also shown that unemployment in obese people is more frequent in women than in men. In Iceland, there is a high degree of equality among men and women; and equality is seen in all the fields, such as politics, economy, education etc. In fact, it is the first country in the world to elect a woman to be its president. Hence, this country provides a unique opportunity to study gender bias in the employment of obese individuals.
- For this study, data collected by Gallop Iceland were used. Gallop Iceland had interviewed 2000 Icelanders over telephone and had asked them questions regarding their food habits, exercise, illness, stress, quality of life, work related issues etc.
- The employment status of participants was assessed by asking each of them whether he/ she was an employee, employer, homemaker, student, pensioned, or unemployed.
- Obesity was identified by calculating the body mass index (BMI). BMI of over 30 was taken as a measure of obesity.
- Health status of the participants was also noted. Demographic details, such as age, sex, marital status etc. were also collected.
- Employment in obese men was similar to the other men in the general population. The probability of employment was positively correlated with weight.
- In women, an inverse relationship was observed between body weight and employment. It was found that women with higher body weight were less employed.
- When health status was excluded in the evaluation, these associations in men and women were more pronounced.
In the present study, obesity was identified by measuring the BMI. Some studies have shown that BMI is not a reliable indicator of fat content of the body. Although the sample was representative of Icelandic population, it was small and inadequate. Most of the measures, such as height and weight of participants were self-reported and were hence prone to bias. Actual measurement by researchers would have provided more accurate results.
This study has proved that, “for women, excess weight is negatively correlated with employment, whereas the opposite is the case for men.” Such findings in country such as Iceland are very significant. Similar results are found in studies conducted in England, Denmark and Finland. If obesity is associated with unemployment, rising obesity in the western population will lead to higher unemployment in future. As governments provide financial security to the unemployed, this will increase the burden on tax payers. According to researchers to increase the employability of overweight individuals, it is necessary to conduct blind interviews, such as telephone interviews and written applications. This would eliminate the psychological bias in employers regarding the lower productivity of obese individuals, especially women.
For More Information:
Do Body Weight and Gender Shape the Work Force? The Case of Iceland
Publication Journal: Economics and Human Biology, December 2010
By Tinna Asgeirsdottir
From the University of Iceland, Reykjavik, Iceland
*FYI Living Lab Reports Are Summaries of the Original Research.