A Moment on the Lips; A Lifetime on Pay Slips

New studies suggest that very thin women earn proportionately more money than do average-sized women. Comprising only women within 25lbs of doctor-recommended weight, the latter study strictly compares the rail-thin to her average-sized female colleagues.

The Wall Street Journal reports today that employers “seem to treat women…the way the fashion industry does”; thin women get much higher paychecks than do average-weight women, while thin men tend to earn less than their average-weight colleagues:

The study is the first look at the effects of being very thin on men vs. women. Separate studies of 11,253 Germans and 12,686 U.S. residents led by Timothy A. Judge of the University of Florida found very thin women, weighing 25 pounds less than the group norm, earned an average $15,572 a year more than women of normal weight. Women continued to experience a pay penalty as their weight increased above average levels, although a smaller one — presumably because they had already violated social norms for the ideal female appearance. A woman who gained 25 pounds above the average weight earned an average $13,847 less than an average-weight female.

Men were also penalized for violating stereotypes about ideal male appearance, but in a different way. Thin guys earned $8,437 less than average-weight men. But they were consistently rewarded for getting heavier, a trend that tapered off only when their weight hit the obese level. In one study, the highest pay point, on average, was reached for guys who weighed a strapping 207 pounds.

Plenty of logical explanations account for the disparity and have nothing to do with “sizeism.” Perhaps folks who conform to social image ideals produce better results because they can better influence others. Perhaps people who work hard to attain an unnatural weight — very thin for women, overtly muscular for men — apply the same work ethic to their jobs. Perhaps women who care enough about body image to forego dessert are more attuned to their bosses’ opinion of their performance in other areas. Or perhaps the body types prevalent in the study sites — Germany and Florida — tend towards thin, and 25lbs becomes a highly variable range.

Even more poignant is the idea that a great deal of weight control is competitiveness. Weight plays into office politics. Office politics affect confidence. Confidence in turn changes the way people perceive themselves — and changes the way people negotiate for employer perception or pay.

WSJ goes on to cite a September George Washington University study comparing obesity costs across genders:

Meanwhile, in separate research, economists at George Washington University tabulated the cost of obesity and found that it’s more expensive for a woman to be obese than for a man, according to the New York Times. (Their calculations included direct costs, like medical expenses, and indirect expenses, like lost wages and reduced work productivity.)  While a man racks up $2,646 annually in extra expenses if he is obese, a woman’s obesity costs her $4,879, almost twice as much[.]

The weight-gender-pay spectrum reeks of sexist scandal, but there’s another side to this story.

Women have fared much better in the recession than have men. Women’s paychecks may be more elastic to social pressures, but this flexibility provides a measure of job security that men’s inelastic, less-sensitive paychecks seem to lack.

When considering drastic measures like the Equal Pay Act 2010 that will subject women’s salaries to the inelastic measures men enjoy, recall that pay flexibility has allowed women to retain jobs at a much higher rate during the recession. Women have also bounced back into the workforce in droves, while male-dominated sectors continue to fall and men continue their weak showing in gender-neutral industries.

Price always conveys information.

Paycheck disparity may sound like scandal, but as a measure of personality cues, workplace signaling, willingness to negotiate, and hours actually worked, this is merely one more factor in the employee informational bundle.

Employers pay workers who product more than they cost. If weight plays into this formula, hopeful employees take note. If we erect a price floor by attempting to thwart the market information available here (or by passing yet more “equal pay” legislation), the next round of layoffs will hurt much worse.