Employment Trends

Plus-sized women face shocking discrimination from hiring managers, study shows

Written by Guest Contributor

Have you ever left a job interview feeling like the interviewer was more focused on your appearance than your responses? Chances are you have — and new research shows that if you’re a woman, that gut feeling is quite rational.

A new study from my company, Fairygodboss, asked 500 hiring professionals to look at images of 15 professional women of varied ages and races who had different hairstyles, body shapes, and attire. Respondents chose three adjectives (out of 11) to describe each woman and selected the women they’d be most likely to hire.

The responses revealed that appearance does play a significant role in how hiring professionals perceive women.

The data

In our survey, we first asked hiring managers to pick the top qualities they look for when assessing job candidates. The most frequently selected qualities were professionalism (chosen by 68.28 percent of respondents), reliability (chosen by 60.69 percent), and leadership material (chosen by 46.21 percent).

The top hiring choice was a young, Caucasian brunette. She was described as professional, confident, and friendly. While only one of these qualities overlaps with the three top-rated qualities among respondents, she was still the most likely to be hired.

If a candidate’s appearance varied from this woman, she was less likely to be hired, regardless of whether or not she had the qualities hiring managers were looking for.

Hiring managers were particularly harsh when judging the heaviest candidate. She was more likely than any other woman to be described as lazy (20 percent of respondents matched her with this adjective). Even though 44.8 percent said she was professional and 32.8 percent said she was reliable, just 15.2 percent said they would hire her over the other candidates. This placed her 14th of 15 for hireability.

When shown an image of an older candidate, respondents ranked her sixth (out of 15) for professionalism, third for leadership ability, and first for reliability — yet just 29.2 percent said they would hire her over other candidates.

Women of color also seemed to be facing a strong bias. Respondents rated most of the women of color as more reliable and having more leadership ability than the Caucasian woman, but remarkably enough, they were all less likely to be hired.

This is how the data breaks down:

The Caucasian brunette was rated:

  • Professional – 75.4 percent of respondents
  • Reliable – 19.6 percent of respondents
  • Leadership material – 27.8 percent of respondents
  • Would be hired – 60.0 percent of respondents

The African-American woman was rated:

  • Professional – 64.8 percent of respondents
  • Reliable – 29.8 percent of respondents
  • Leadership material – 29.2 percent of respondents
  • Would be hired – 45.6 percent of respondents

The Asian woman was rated:

  • Professional – 57.6 percent of respondents
  • Reliable – 37.0 percent of respondents
  • Leadership material – 27.6 percent of respondents
  • Would be hired – 31.4 percent of respondents

The Hispanic woman was rated:

  • Professional – 42.2 percent of respondents
  • Reliable – 19.6 percent of respondents
  • Leadership material – 33.2 percent of respondents
  • Would be hired – 26.6 percent of respondents

What this means for women

It’s an unfortunate reality that you are still largely judged by how you look and dress. Hiring managers might perceive that you possess all of the qualities they’re looking for, but depending on your appearance, you still may not get the job. Since your age and race — and to some extent your weight — are out of your control, what can you do?

In some situations, even the best interview responses might not overcome these biases. It is worth mentioning, however, that not all people share the same prejudices.

Our data suggests that some hiring managers are less biased than others. For example, younger hiring professionals (between 25 and 34 years old) were more likely to hire the older candidate. Thirty percent said they’d consider the older woman, while just 15.4 percent of respondents over age 54 would. This means that older job seekers shouldn’t be afraid to apply for positions at up-and-coming companies that are largely led by young employees.

Our research also shows that most women of color are more likely to be hired if their interviewer is of the same race. Both African-American and Asian respondents said they would hire the candidate of the same race.

While you cannot choose the age or race of your interviewer, you can do research on companies to determine whether they prioritize diversity. Before interviewing, check review sites to see what current and former employees have to say about the organization in terms of inclusion.

In the end, women are going to face unique and unfair obstacles during the job search. Hiring managers will look at them and make assumptions about who they are based on their appearance. But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing you can do to prove you’re worth hiring.

About the author

Georgene Huang is obsessed with improving the workplace for women. She’s the CEO and Co-founder of Fairygodboss, a marketplace where professional women looking for jobs, career advice and the inside scoop on companies meet employers who believe in gender equality. Previously she ran the enterprise business at Dow Jones and was a Managing Director at Bloomberg Ventures. She is a graduate of Cornell and Stanford Universities.


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