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We talked to an expert to help understand the results of a new study about gender, bodies, and pay.
A new study found that tall men and thin women are paid more than their short, fat counterparts. This may come as no surprise to the gender-informed: The workplace is one of the first and most enduring feminist battlegrounds. Gender inequality, from sexual harassment to sexist wage gaps, is still an issue for women, who are paid, on average, 74 cents for every dollar men earn—and according to this new data, men who don't measure up to their gender's ideal are paying for it as well.
Dr. Amy Blackstone is a professor of sociology at the University of Maine. In an interview with Broadly, she said that employers aren't intending to amount an employee's value to physical characteristics beyond their control, but that doesn't mean gender biases don't invade the workplace. "No doubt [employers] like to think that they value and reward employees based on their contributions at work," Dr. Blackstone says. "These findings highlight the need for continued vigilance and tracking on the part of employers to look for patterns that may suggest unintended discrimination."
She isn't surprised to hear that taller men receive higher pay, because "height connotes power and authority." Such inequity is the product of societal views about gender, the body, and power. The fact that overweight women are paid less at work is even less surprising, given the cultural obsession with thinness. Dr. Blackstone says that the preference for smaller women is reflective of the cultural desire for women to be less than men. "For women, being thin means taking up less space, something that is expected of women both literally and symbolically," she says.
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Unequal pay is just one manifestation of sexism in the workplace. American lawmakers have worked hard in recent months to eliminate women's access to reproductive health care and, as Broadly recently investigated, sexism in US law and policy, such as our medieval lack of federally mandated, paid maternity leave, constitutes a crisis. It is the cause of material damage in women's lives.
The dominant narrative is that we all have equal opportunities regardless of physical appearance. We know that this isn't true.
Paying certain men and women less in relation to the way they look is obviously disturbing, but worse is the realization that this data is part of a broader system of oppression that structures the lived experiences of us all. "For men, and for women, living in a society that values gendered bodies that may be unattainable or physically impossible for a given individual to achieve can be—to put it mildly—incredibly demoralizing," Blackstone says. She explains that sexism, whether in the workplace or elsewhere, impacts other parts of our lives as well.
According to Blackstone, it's helpful to have research into gendered experiences because it provides quantifiable data on discrimination and injustice, which are often made invisible or denied via the political machinations of powers that be. "This is especially true in a society like ours, where the dominant narrative is that we all have equal opportunities regardless of physical appearance. We know that this isn't true, and this study's findings bring that reality to the fore.
"Culturally, we all lose when gender inequality creeps into the workplace," she continues. "If only those who conform to an extremely narrow vision of gendered ideals move ahead in the workplace, we all miss out on the contributions that a more diverse group of workers could have made. And if young girls and boys don't see people like themselves moving ahead in the workplace, this could impact their own aspirations and beliefs about what is possible in their working lives."
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