Fatter, shorter, darker - poorer

Jan 29 2007 by Brian Amble Print This Article

As a raft of recent research has highlighted, your physical appearance may have much more of an effect on the amount you earn than you might think.

There was bad news for Britain's overweight job seekers last week when it emerged that employers in the UK who discriminate against obese job candidates are quite within their rights to do so - as long as there is no medical reason for their weight problem.

In the United States, meanwhile, the spiralling cost of health insurance has given employers a real financial incentive to discriminate against the obese Ė so much so that a study by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that the shortfall in wages for obese workers more than tripled over the nine years from 1998 a 2005, from $1 (52p) an hour to $3.40 (£1.75).

The same phenomenon has now been recorded in Europe, with a recent study published in the journal Economics and Human Biology finding that for every 10 per cent increase in body mass index (BMI), a man loses 3.27 per cent in earnings, and a woman 1.86 per cent.

But it isn't just being overweight that can hit you in the pocket. There is also a

"plainness penalty" in many workplaces, with research by London Guildhall University finding that unattractive men earned 15 per cent less than those deemed attractive, while plain women earned 11 per cent less than their prettier colleagues.

Height matters, too. According to a 2005 study by the Federal Reserve Bank of St Louis, good-looking, slim, tall people earn around five per cent more per hour than their less attractive colleagues.


Other studies have found that every extra inch of height can be worth an extra $1,000 a year in wages, even when education and experience are taken into account.

A further impediment to earnings Ė and one that appears to be more complex than simple ethnicity or race - is skin colour.

A new study by a Vanderbilt University professor Joni Hersch has found that legal immigrants in the United States with a lighter skin tone make more money than those with darker skin.

Even when taking into consideration characteristics that might affect wages, such as English language proficiency, work experience and education, Hersch found immigrants with the lightest skin colour earned, on average, eight per cent to 15 per cent more than immigrants with the darkest skin tone.

These effect persisted even among workers with the same ethnicity, race and country of origin.

The research also confirms the role that height plays in earnings, with every inch adding an additional one per cent to wages.

Hersch said she considered various explanations for skin colour's effect on wages, such as discrimination in country of birth, the possibility that darker skin colour is caused by outdoor work, which is lower paying, and interviewer bias.

After ruling out those explanations, Hersch concluded that discrimination is the strongest explanation for why lighter and taller immigrants make more money.

"I was surprised and dismayed at how strong and persistent the skin colour effect was even after I considered a whole series of alternative interpretations and explanations," she said.