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Why ‘inclusive’ workplaces still make fat people feel invisible

The Visible Collective founder Jessica Richman says we need an empathy challenge to acknowledge how larger-bodied people, who make up 71% of the U.S. population, are routinely discounted at work.

Why ‘inclusive’ workplaces still make fat people feel invisible
[Photo: Flickr user Matthias Ripp]

As a fat woman, I represent a population that has not yet been recognized in diversity and inclusion (D&I) initiatives that continue to make headlines.

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In the venture capital community, 900 founders recently committed publicly to making the diversity of their investors an important factor in their decision to accept capital. From a policy standpoint, California became the first state to enact legislation that requires publicly traded companies to have at least one woman on their board of directors by the end of 2019. Government and the business community are clearly putting their money where their mouth is.

Many companies have even overhauled their recruitment, hiring, and retention strategies to be more inclusive. In the last two years, job postings for diversity and inclusion positions increased by nearly 20%. Yet it continues to get harder to find good talent. Over half (56%) of employers surveyed by LinkedIn stated they believe they are missing out on talent due to discrimination against people because of their weight. You would think that companies would want to employ strategies to combat weight bias so they can hire the best people.

However, larger-bodied people are still overlooked for jobs because people tend to assume that due to our size, we are lazy. A 2017 survey from Fairygodboss found that when 500 hiring professionals were shown a picture of a larger-bodied woman, only 15.6% of them said they would hire her. Twenty percent characterized the woman as lazy. An older study found that biased workers viewed larger-bodied people as less competent.

So, despite surviving one of the most competitive high schools in the country and graduating from one of the top undergraduate business schools in the world, I am doomed to be judged by my appearance.

I am also aware that, since weight discrimination is legal in 48 states (Michigan and Washington are exceptions), fat people won’t have much of a case if we decide to take a current or potential employer to court for discriminating against us due to our weight.

Getting hired is just the first obstacle. Fat professional women will likely be paid less than women who are considered traditionally thin. According to some estimates, “heavy” or “very heavy” women could be paid from $9,000 to $19,000 less per year and almost $22,000 less annually than women who are considered really thin.

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I recently went to see a movie called Booksmart, which features a brilliant young woman who happens to be larger-bodied. There is a scene where she talks about her post-college plans (including eventually being the youngest Supreme Court justice). As I watch her share her dreams and visions, I can’t help but think about the challenges she will face along the way, no matter how brilliant she is. Although this character is fictional, the biases she will face are an unfortunate reality.

I live in Silicon Valley, where hustling is a religion and people pray at the altar of the latest youth-enhancing diet or trend. Here, the idea of creating a D&I strategy featuring larger-bodied people may seem insane. But it’s necessary to start talking about it.

As part of this dialogue, I would like to institute an empathy challenge. Next time you find yourself making an assumption about someone’s skills or ability to accomplish a task or a job due to their size, I encourage you to question where those assumptions are coming from, and whether they are actually driven by data or by something much deeper. Take an empathy pause, if you will, and reflect. Not only for you but for your business.

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella always discusses how empathy is a key driver for innovation and success. If you were to develop a deeper sense of empathy for larger-bodied people and the biases they constantly face, imagine how that could change hiring practices, which could eventually change the products and services you create. Products and services that could meet the needs of the 71% of people who the CDC labels as obese or overweight.

One of the reasons I started The Visible Collective in my spare time was to gather data on business opportunities and customer needs for the larger-bodied population. I’ve learned that support for laws banning weight discrimination increased from 73% to 79% nationally between 2010 to 2015, with no differences in public support by political affiliation.

Although the general public supports these laws, I don’t know of any companies that are actively addressing unconscious bias related to weight. The only company I know that has mentioned the issue of weight discrimination at work is Walmart-owned plus-size apparel retailer Eloquii, which ran a marketing campaign about the issue of weight bias and discrimination in the workplace.

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There is hope that innovative companies in Silicon Valley and beyond will begin to change and not wait for the government to adjust current policies or create new ones. In fact, a place like Silicon Valley often innovates in spite of legislation. Addressing weight bias and discrimination should be no different. Companies have an opportunity to get ahead of current policy and incorporate people of size into their diversity and inclusion plans. In doing so, they may encourage the government and continue to drive the general populace to question its views on weight stigma and bias.

And hopefully, one day, I and many others will no longer have to feel invisible in the workplace.

Jessica Richman is the founder and CEO of The Visible Collective. The Visible Collective advises companies on product development, marketing, and new business development to better serve the 71% of customers labeled overweight or obese by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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