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Obese Women More Likely to Suffer Wage Discrimination Than Men

Nov. 17, 2004 -- Being obese can affect more than your health, it can affect your livelihood, too.

Misty Watts had worked as a waitress for the Ruby Tuesday restaurant chain for two and a half years last August when she says she was fired out of the blue for being overweight. Just three days earlier the widow, part-time college student, and mother of three was named "Employee of the Month" at the restaurant, but on the day she was terminated a visiting district manager told her she didn't fit the company's image.

"I asked him, 'Are you firing me because I'm fat?'" the 240-pound, 5-feet, 5-inch tall Hickory, North Carolina woman tells WebMD. "And he said, 'Let's just say it's because your shirt doesn't fit and it never will.' When my store manager asked if they could keep me and not hire anyone else with this image the response was, 'No, we have an image to uphold and we have to start now.'"

The Pound Penalty

Weight discrimination in the workplace is common, but the economic cost for individual workers of being obese is not well understood. In a newly published study, finance professors from Middle Tennessee State University sought to quantify this cost using analytical methods that controlled for other variables that have been shown to influence income.

The issue is of growing importance, as more and more Americans find themselves heavy enough to be considered obese. About one in three adults in the U.S. meet the standard, meaning they have a body mass index of 30 or more. There are now more obese adults in this country than cigarette smokers or drug users.

The MTSU researchers found that the economic cost of obesity, or the "pound penalty," as they called it, was much greater for women than for men. But both sexes experienced a persistent obesity-related wage penalty over the first two decades of their careers.

After controlling for other variables influencing income, obesity was found to lower a man's annual earnings by as much as 2.3% and a woman's by as much as 6.2%. The average reduction for women was around 4.5%, study researcher Charles L. Baum, PhD, tells WebMD. The findings were reported in the September issue of the journal Health Economics.

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