Weigh more and get paid less: why the obesity wage penalty for women matters

Blog posts

18 Aug 2023

Stephen Bevan

Stephen Bevan, Principal Associate

Follow @StephenBevan

If the success of a newspaper or online opinion column is judged by the number of ‘clicks’ or ‘likes’ it gets, then choosing a topic which taps into maximum reader indignation seems guaranteed to work in most cases. Complaining about cyclists who jump red lights, or the number of students on so-called ‘Mickey Mouse’ degree courses almost always attracts an audience of angry readers who share the frustration of the author. Another provocative topic chosen with predictable regularity is the UK's obesity crisis and the failure of so many people living with overweight or obesity to deploy sufficient willpower to control their weight.

For many journalists, obesity ticks lots of boxes. It stirs up strongly held opinions about personal responsibility. It has some apparently simple solutions which could eliminate the problem if only the author’s advice was followed more closely. It also invokes exasperation over the sinister role of the ‘nanny state’ and still permits the use of discriminatory and mocking images. In some cases, it allows authors to demonstrate the supremacy of their common sense over boring old scientific evidence that eating less and moving more is so rarely the answer.

Whatever your position on the ‘willpower versus genetics’ debate on obesity, one thing is clear - many people living with overweight or obesity experience regular stigma and discrimination based on their weight. Much of this stigma is still manifested, regrettably, in healthcare settings leading to many not getting access to the advice, guidance, support or treatment they need, partly because there remains a reluctance to accept that obesity is a disease in its own right. In addition, although less widely recognised, weight-based stigma and discrimination remain common and pervasive in the jobs market and in employment settings. Up to 45 per cent of employers claim they would be reluctant to employ a candidate living with obesity for example, and a recent survey suggested that almost 70 percent of employees believe that weight discrimination exists where they work. Worse still, many in positions of power in both healthcare and employment remain convinced that discrimination against the people living with obesity is justified.

Obesity stigma and employment has been a focus of a significant programme of research which IES has been conducting for the last three years. Among other things, it is clear that stereotyping of the attitudes, willpower and motivation of people living with overweight or obesity plays a part in their poorer recruitment success, promotion rates, performance evaluations and pay outcomes compared with equally qualified workers of ‘normal’ weight. We rehearse and expand on different aspects of the labour market experiences of people living with obesity in several reports of the IES Purpose Programme, available here.

But in this blog, I want to focus on just one aspect of our research which we feel merits special attention, not least because it has implications for the way we manage key aspects of public health, childhood obesity, social inclusion, diversity and labour productivity in both the UK and in other developed economies. This is the persistent wage penalty for working age women living with obesity. Our research has highlighted two key headlines which we think should concern governments, healthcare professionals, employers and teachers.

First, and expanding on the findings of a major review carried out for the UK government by Professor Dame Carol Black in 2016, we have found that women living with obesity experience a 9 per cent wage penalty compared with working age women of ‘normal’ weight - and that no such gap exists for men. Our analysis also suggests that this gap in earnings is largely attributable to stigma and discrimination, with differences in educational attainment, some health inequalities and occupational segregation also playing a part. Several studies have found a link between obesity and earnings for women. One calculated that a standard deviation increase in body mass index (BMI) resulted in a 16 per cent decrease in hourly wages for women living with obesity. We have looked at the impact of this wage penalty for women in the UK, the Netherlands and in Spain and the annual cost to women living with obesity is €12.12 billion in the UK, €1.48 billion in the Netherlands and €3.49 billion in Spain. All three of these countries have significant gender pay gaps already (14.9 per cent, 14.2 per cent and 8.6 per cent respectively in 2022) and the contribution of obesity to this structural inequality in earnings has not, to our knowledge, ever been taken explicitly into account.

Second, we have found that the wage penalty for women living with obesity may be a more significant and long-lasting consequence of childhood obesity than previously estimated. Using data from Spanish labour market, we looked at the life-course impact on earnings for a woman of 18 living with obesity and leaving full-time education in 2022. We found that the annual obesity-related wage penalty stands at €1714 at age 18 in 2022, €2314 at age 30 in 2034, €2676 at age 50 in 2054 and €2803 at age 64 in 2058. Assuming the 18-year-old woman remains employed throughout her career, the obesity-related earnings penalty she will experience by the time she retires (compared to an equally qualified 18 year old woman of ‘normal’ weight) will be €110,000. Across the whole Spanish economy with its current rates of obesity this translates to an aggregate total loss of earnings of €176 billion. Moreover, some studies suggest that this wage penalty persists even if an individual reduces their BMI to ‘normal’ weight later on in their career. This suggests that early intervention to prevent or mitigate the effects of childhood obesity may have economic as well as public health benefits.

This analysis demonstrates that weight-based stigma and discrimination in employment, for women at least, transcends international borders, can persist over the life-course, is yet another damaging consequence of childhood obesity and has measurable economic and productivity consequences for individuals and the wider workforce. Until we can successfully and permanently challenge the still popular misconception that overweight and obesity are volitional, or lifestyle choices, then casual and deeply embedded discrimination against people living with obesity will continue to have damaging clinical, societal and economic consequences which will persist for decades to come.


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Any views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Institute as a whole.