Height discrimination: How ‘heightism’ affects careers

Heightism is hard to identify. Yet there’s evidence that our biases around stature help shape our careers.

In 2010, when Imran found work as a security guard at a private university in Karachi, Pakistan, he threw himself into it wholeheartedly. Working the graveyard shift, he strove to project assertiveness and protect the property from theft or vandalism, while also being friendly, as the first point of contact for early morning visitors.

It hasn’t all been plain sailing. At just shy of 5’2” (157cm), Imran is only a few inches shorter than the average Pakistani male. Yet workers trickling in have assigned Imran nicknames they consider funny. “Munna bhai!” one exclaimed, a local term of endearment for a small, young brother. “Bona,” called out another – Urdu for pygmy or dwarf.

Imran, whose full name is being withheld for job security, says he’s proud of who he is, and can ride out “ups and downs” related to his height. But there’s one area where he suspects his height has a particularly negative impact: his pay. “When it’s time for a pay rise, I’m compared to the new guards. I’ve served this institution for so long; I shouldn’t be in the same [wage bracket] as them.” 

Nobody has linked the two outright, and even Imran sometimes wonders if it’s a figment of his imagination that his height has played a role in being passed over for promotion. But as he finds himself grouped in the same salary band as newly recruited guards for yet another year, he can’t help but wonder if evaluations based on his stature – not his work – are holding him back.

Height discrimination is one of the least-known or discussed biases, and one of the hardest to confirm. Like Imran, many wonder if making that leap is ludicrous, and question whether anyone could ever reasonably conflate short stature with negative qualities. Even those with ‘normal’ or above-average stature find it hard to believe they’ve ever held biases based on height or benefited from them.

Yet research shows that on a professional level, stature affects both men and women in tangible, albeit slightly different, ways. Studies show height correlates with higher incomerecruiters favour taller candidates and height influences promotion opportunities. Research demonstrates we perceive taller men and women as more ‘leader-like’, deeming them more dominant, intelligent and healthier; tall men are more likely to attain managerial positions.  

Still, heightism is an implicit bias, one we may subconsciously harbour or, indeed, internalise, without realising it. And it’s this covertness that makes it particularly difficult to eradicate. Some research demonstrates we perceive taller men and women as more 'leader-like', deeming them more dominant, intelligent and healthier (Credit: Getty Images)

Some research demonstrates we perceive taller men and women as more ‘leader-like’, deeming them more dominant, intelligent and healthier (Credit: Getty Images)

Standing tall and falling short

We know there are various forms of discrimination linked to how we look, such as weight discrimination or having a baby face. But we also discriminate against people based on stature, because we view certain heights as better than others. 

Dr Omer Kimhi, an associate professor at the University of Haifa, Faculty of Law, who has researched heightism, believes heightism has roots in evolutionary biases, due to the importance of height and strength in the animal kingdom. “If you’re bigger, you’re the head of the group. Some of that remains engrained… and we perceive height as connected to authority, strength and a higher position,” he says.

Our reverence for height may indeed be instinctive ­– a remnant of primitive ways we mapped social hierarchies in the past. In ancestral societies, fitness and being physically imposing were important leadership traits. But, says Dr Erin Pritchard, a lecturer in Disability Studies at Liverpool Hope University and core member of the Centre for Culture & Disability Studies, there are multiple ways we entrench heightism in modern society.

“Countries have their own optimal height based on the curve, and it becomes what everyone ‘should’ be. If you’re below it, we ask ourselves [if something is] wrong – but we revere tallness,” says Pritchard.

Heightism even infiltrates language, which is full of idioms highlighting the virtues of being tall, while associating negative qualities with shortness. To ‘fail’ is to draw the short straw, fall short or be short-changed; ‘winning’ at life means we can stand tall, fulfil tall orders, grow into great, tall oaks from little acorns and be head-and-shoulders above the rest.

Subconsciously, we form beliefs about people that link height to both cognitive and physical qualities. We subliminally view taller people as more capable and risk-tolerantdominant, extraordinarily talented and even charismatic. On the other hand, explains Pritchard, “People who are shorter are not taken as seriously. [They’re] not respected and can be the butt of the joke.” 

Heightism is an implicit bias, and it doesn’t fit our mental template of discrimination as an intentional and harmful act

Still, people generally don’t recognise their own heightism or perceive it as a form of discrimination. That’s because heightism is an implicit bias, and it doesn’t fit our mental template of discrimination as an intentional and harmful act. Managers, for example, may have no inkling that the way they perceive a particular employee – and the employee’s prospects – is in any way linked to their height, making the issue particularly hard to tackle. 

In Imran’s case, he wouldn’t even know how to raise the issue of whether his height was a factor in his pay progression with his superiors. “Who do I talk to? I’m blessed with a lot of important work, [so] what would I say? How do I start without messing everything up?” he comments.  

The impact at work

Despite difficulty pinning down this form of discrimination, heightism has profound – and measured – impacts on workers’ success. 

Research on systemic discrimination in hiring decisions has shown employers may reject shorter candidates even if their resume is similar to a taller applicant’s, and they subconsciously associate positive workplace traits like confidence, competence and physical ability with tallness. 

Once hired, meta-analysis shows rates of promotion are positively related to height. Kimhi references Malcolm Gladwell’s widely-quoted survey of Fortune 500 CEOs in his 2005 book Blink. “In the US population, about 14.5% of all men are six feet or over. Among CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, that number is 58%,” wrote Gladwell. 

Height can also contribute to a wage gap. Studies from the UKChina and the US all show a correlation between greater height and greater pay, though exact numbers vary.

There’s also a gendered component. Research conducted by Inas R Kelly, professor of economics at Loyola Marymount University, California, revealed marked differences in the effect of height on mean income by gender. “White men face a much larger premium for each additional 10cm than white women,” she says, and that gap is even more pronounced for African Americans. Heightism can also affect women, particularly tall women, who may be perceived as intimidating (Credit: Getty Images)

Heightism can also affect women, particularly tall women, who may be perceived as intimidating (Credit: Getty Images)

This links into the idea that women can be too tall, and that tall women face discrimination in a way tall men don’t. According to a study of tall female college students, their above-average height resulted in ‘unintended intimidation’. “If there’s a woman towering over others, they might view her as a threat … As a woman, if you show dominance, it’s considered aggression. It could be problematic,” says Pritchard.   

On the flip side, men are more vulnerable to heightism. As Kelly’s findings suggest, taller men have more to gain than women by being tall, but shorter women have less to lose by being short, as the wage premium commanded by their taller female peers is smaller. This may be because women slightly shorter than average can be still be deemed ‘small’ or ‘petite’, explains Pritchard. 

Of course, heightism doesn’t only manifest in external judgements of an individual. Research suggests there are other height-linked factors that shape people’s behaviours, which can in turn affect outcomes at work. Kelly points out that many experts argue height is in fact positively associated with cognitive ability, and is simply rewarded in the labour market. She also suggests the larger question is whether shorter individuals might have faced discrimination in a way that affected their self-esteem, mental health and emotional stability – which can feed into promotions and pay.

For instance, taller children may have higher self-esteem because of more opportunities to participate in team-building sports at school, whereas shorter students may have been bullied, leading to less enhanced interpersonal skills and lower self-confidence. Similarly, being tall may also fuel other successes – such as in the realm of romance or perceived attractiveness – nurturing more confidence and spawning a self-fulfilling prophecy.  

“It’s difficult to rule out discrimination at some stage – if not at the employer stage, then at a stage earlier in their lives,” she says.   

‘Like most -isms’

Given how entrenched ­– and yet covert – heightism is, finding concrete ways to tackle it may be challenging. 

Existing legislation surrounding height only exists in a few jurisdictions, such as Michigan’s comprehensive Elliot Larsen Civil Rights Act, which prohibits employers from discriminating on the basis of height in hiring and compensation. Laws prevent height from being listed as a necessary pre-requisite unless it is a bona fide occupational qualification required for normal operation of the business. But even in places where the legislation exists, very few cases are filed.

If there’s a woman towering over others, they might view her as a threat … As a woman, if you show dominance, it’s considered aggression – Erin Pritchard

Kimhi points out that because height discrimination is so hard to identify, it’s data that is needed. Many companies already keep data on gender and race so they can track inclusion and progression at firms. While it may seem like a long shot, Kimhi believes including height in this data and pushing companies to publish height-specific salary variations will help them become mindful that this sort of discrimination occurs. “And if they notice, things will change,” he believes.  

Pritchard is hopeful that remote hiring via Zoom or video CVs could reduce biases that creep in during the hiring stage. “When you’re online, you just see [a candidate’s] head and shoulders, so you can’t make subliminal judgments,” she says. “And if they do hire someone and they turn out to be a great person, by the time [employers] find out the person doing this fantastic work is only 5’2”, the worker will have already built a solid reputation.” 

More broadly, experts suggest it may also be time to reconsider our evolutionary glorification of height by critically evaluating the differences between modern and ancestral environments, and challenging whether the qualities we once deemed vital to success are actually relevant to professional achievement in today’s workplaces. But given the deeply ingrained nature of our beliefs, that may be too tall an order.

Overall, as long as people still believe that success, leadership – and even discrimination – look a particular way, the problem won’t go away. Ultimately, change, as clichéd as it sounds, will come from within – by challenging implicit biases and self-correcting when people find themselves placing height on a pedestal. 

Still, combating heightism will be a long journey. As Pritchard says, “Like most ‘-isms’, it’s going to be an ongoing process.”

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