Fat Chance

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I’ve wanted to write a piece on discrimination pivoted around lifestyle choice and things we’re born as since sometime last year. Here’s as far as I’d ever got previously in draft form:

There are a number of health and wellbeing factors that can affect our ability to work. As someone doing the hiring, alcohol, drugs, smoking and obesity are all things that might cause me to stop and think, ‘hmmm, do I want that person on my team?’ A problem with the first three is that their effects are often well hidden from view. So when considering someone as a new hire or a promotion, although their health may being adversely affected by alcohol, drugs, smoking and/or combinations of the three, there’s often no obvious way of spotting this. Clearly it’s pretty simple to spot someone who is overweight.

That’s as far as it went – until today.


I believe discrimination based on sex, race, gender i.e. stuff we’re born as, is wrong. And everything we can do separately and together to increase tolerance and diversity, and remove this discrimination from our lives is to be encouraged.

Testing Times

I was recently asked to take part in some tests to see what if any unconscious bias they revealed in me. 122 people took part as an experiment for People Management Magazine and they’ve published a piece on the results here. The headline figures the magazine piece picks out are:

51% biased against overweight women

37% biased against men

I was surprised both were so high, though less so about the figure relating to weight than gender. Apparently the data for the overweight men test was inconclusive which I guess means they didn’t get enough data?

The specific tests I took as part of this experiment were: gender bias, gender career bias, and overweight bias (I chose the male and female versions of this test). Your results put you in one of four brackets: Low, Mid-Range, Elevated or High, explained in more detail below:

Low scores indicate a neutral or weak preference for one group over another. Mid-range scores indicate a moderate preference for one group over another which may be affecting behaviour without the person even being aware. Elevated and High scores indicate a strong or very strong preference, with an increasing probability that the person is behaving with preference for one group over the other. Again the person may be unaware that these stronger preferences are affecting their behaviour in subtle ways, making them unconsciously uncivil or giving off unintentional negative signals.

I scored low in all these tests – particularly low in the gender and gender career bias, however in both weight bias tests I was at the very upper end of the low bracket.

Lifestyle Choice?

We were encouraged to choose tests that interested us, and I chose the weight bias ones specifically because for a lot of people, weight is part of a lifestyle choice. We can none of us choose to be black, white, male, female, gay or straight – but we can overwhelmingly choose what we eat, how much we eat, and make other choices that affect our weight. I’m not advocating what people choose to do or not to do for one second, I simply wanted to test my responses to something we choose rather than something we are born as. And based on these few results I am more biased when the question being asked has a basis in personal choice.

Employment Issue?

Health issues are on my mind a lot – my own health, and that of my family, friends and the wider community in general. Health and wellbeing matters  And I often wonder to what extent employers and HR people, should be taking account of them too. Particularly when they are choice based issues, so I might put smoking and drinking, along with being overweight in the mix too. At what point, if any, should an employer be getting involved in these things? Or choosing whether or not to hire someone because of them?

Is it acceptable say, to refuse to employ someone who drinks too much? Or someone who is too fat? And who decides how much drink is too much, or how fat is too fat? I think that employers should have some say in these matters, at least in so far as they affect a person’s ability to do their job. And there are a number of implications if and when someone becomes unwell through lifestyle choices. Of course it can be far easier to hide or manage a drink related challenge, it’s kind of tough to disguise the fact that you’re five feet nine and 17 stone, so there’s an obvious difficulty there.

And what about smoking? There can’t be anyone alive who doesn’t know how harmful smoking is – yet it remains legal – and people choose to do it. Can I as an employer also exercise choice and choose not to employ you as a smoker?

Societal Issue?

And of course this goes way beyond employment. Societally we need to face up to this huge and growing problem we have. I don’t think it’s helpful for the Council on Size and Weight Discrimination and others to try and defend or fudge the issue via completely unhelpful FAQ pages. We need to take a long hard look at what we’re eating, how little we’re exercising, and a whole range of other wellbeing issues too, admit that we have problems, and then start helping each other to fix them. Almost a quarter of adults in the UK are obese, more than a third in the USA. These may well be difficult conversations to start, but not having them will prove even tougher in time.

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