Short women make less money: Being petite in the workplace

An article published last week in The Atlantic examined the relationship between height and money.

Specifically, it found that in Western countries, a jump from the 25th percentile of height to the 75th—about four or five inches—is associated with an increase in salary between 9 and 15 percent. Put another way, tall people make hundreds of thousands more over a lifetime than their shorter counterparts.

Height = status = power

Height discrimination is not a new concept. Plenty of studies over the years have focused on how height equals status, power and achievement. People who are taller are more likely to be CEOs, executives, or in positions of power. They make more money. They have more status. Since 1900, the taller candidate has won all but one US presidential election.

Most of these studies focus on men. But did you know that the bias exists against short women, too?

Not a trivial amount

Height discrimination amounts to serious amounts of money over a lifetime. Consider the following statistics:

  • Each inch of height above average is worth $789 per year, according to a study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology.
  • Put another way, this means that someone who is 6 feet tall earns, on average, nearly $166,000 more during a 30-year career than someone who is 5 feet 5 inches–even when controlling for gender, age and weight.
  • This is over and above the gender wage gap that still has women earning, on average, 74 cents for every dollar that men earn.
  • Tall women are respected more, seen as more authoritative, and more likely to be promoted to management-level positions.

  • According to studies, tall women are seen as more “intelligent, assertive and independent”, while short women are considered more “nurturing” and to be better mothers. This leads to a workplace bias where taller women are considered more suited to ambitious careers, while shorter women are dismissed and relegated to more traditional roles as homemakers.
  • A Gallup poll showed that 71% of women believe that taller than average women have an easier time being respected at work, and 66% believe that taller women have an easier time being promoted at work.
  • US data shows that the height gap for both genders widens over the course of a career, with the height premium accounting for approximately $1,000 per inch for women once they’d been in the workplace for about a decade:

So short women get paid less, promoted less, and respected less. And when you add that to how much more it actually costs to be short, we’re talking potentially hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of difference over a lifetime.

Why do we discriminate?

Theories abound for why height discrimination is so pervasive. Some claim that it’s an evolutionary holdover from when height and physical strength determined survival rate. Others claim that it’s because, in childhood, taller and bigger children are accorded more respect from an early age, and therefore learn early to act as natural leaders and to develop the social skills needed to command authority.

In one particularly galling study, researchers even claimed that tall people deserve to earn more, because they are “more intelligent and have greater social skills” than short people, due to have been “better nourished” as children. Don’t get me started on all the layers of messed-up shoddy science at play here.

But the point is, we discriminate because we discriminate. It’s circular. We’ve associated height with status and power for so long that we now seem incapable of getting past it, even though most of us are working in desk jobs where height offers next to no legitimate advantage.

The struggle is real

Being short in the average office has an impact on more than just salary or career advancement. It can also impact your day-to-day life.

I’m a 5-foot-1 woman who holds a director-level position at my agency. In the span of my career, here’s just some of what I’ve had to deal with:

  • I’ve been told that I “come off more authoritatively over the phone” than in person, since people can’t see how short I am over a video-conference screen.
  • I’ve walked into a meeting for the first time only to have people exclaim “you’re so tiny!”
  • I’ve had a male boss tell me I need to wear higher heels if I want to get ahead.
  • I’ve had to ask colleagues to retrieve items off the top shelf, been unable to use the standing desks configured for taller colleagues, and been forced to sit at conference room tables with my feet swinging a foot off the ground.
  • I’ve constantly been asked to bring coffee, take notes, and take the lunch order over taller and/or male colleagues in the room with less seniority than me in the room.
  • I’ve been interrupted, man-splained, talked over, condescended to, and been talked to as though I were a child instead of a grown-ass woman.

And I’m actually one of the lucky ones. I’m highly assertive and I don’t take shit from anyone. I talk back and even interrupt back on occasion. I don’t take crap. I demand respect. And most of the time, I get it.

But it’s not always easy.

Tips for petite women in the workplace

So with all this height discrimination, what should short women do? Should we give up? Assume that the odds are stacked against us and that it’s pointless?

HELL no.

Just because we have to overcome bias doesn’t mean we should cave. Plenty of people face far steeper uphill battles against discrimination, based on other uncontrollable factors like their weight, age, skin colour, ethnic background, sexual orientation, gender identity, or even last name. Most people have something they have to overcome.

So height is just one factor, and it’s not even the most important one. It may be a slight hurdle to overcome on first impression. But we petite women are made of tougher stuff than that, right?

Here are five tips for petites in the business world:

  1. Carry yourself with authority. I won’t say “stand tall” because that’s just feeding into height bias. But I will say, develop a stance, body language, and command of your voice, tone and mannerism that all command quiet respect. Body language can be learned and studied.
  2. Stand up for yourself. If you find that your taller colleagues are interrupting you, talking over you, or treating you with less respect than you deserve, then assert yourself. Call them out politely but firmly, and demand the respect that you deserve.
  3. Resist the temptation to overcompensate. Leave those five-inch heels and that pound of makeup at home; you’re just playing into the bias, and you will look like you’re trying too hard. Likewise, don’t feel the need to act extra aggressive to make up for perceived bias; nobody likes a boss with a Napoleon complex.
  4. But don’t dress or act too young, either. If you’re buying clothes in the kids’ or junior’s department, you won’t look the part at work. Dress appropriately for your age and position, and leave the frilly lace and bows behind. And resist the temptation to play into a “cute”, childlike persona at work. We petite women are already condescended to and infantilized on a regular basis; there’s no sense in making it worse. Blogger Jean at Extra Petite has some great tips on how to dress to project confidence.
  5. Be awesome at what you do. Ultimately, respect is earned by being really, really great at your job. If you know your stuff, then you can compensate for any disadvantages — even height. Own the room, kick butt, and take names.

And, once you’ve done all that, make sure to check your own biases. Height discrimination is relatively minor compared to the shit that some people deal with. If you’ve done all of the above and been promoted into a position of authority, use it responsibly. We all subconsciously have biases, but we can try to cut back on discrimination with more active awareness. Take extra steps to make sure you’re not discriminating against others based on factors outside of their control. We can’t stamp out discrimination unless we all do our part.

4 thoughts on “Short women make less money: Being petite in the workplace

  1. Thank you for this— I am 49, looking about 30, fit, attractive, known for impeccable sense of style, smart, confident and highly experienced and accomplished at what I do. Still, at 49, it is so hard to get respect! I have tried it all, gave it my all, and still struggling. I wrote the book on how to appear, I sit at the table and am always aware of this issue, and instead, I am received so differently than male, or taller counterparts. My next move is to work for myself, so I can be myself and no one has a choice but to follow the little leader. Unfortunately, at this age, I have tried it all, I am out of ideas.

  2. I’m 55 and I’m exhausted from working so hard for respect. Even when my closest friends disagree with me or don’t believe something I’m saying is true, they speak to me as though I’m a child who needs to be calmed with a sweet, soothing tone of voice. Now I’m beginning to deal with ageism as well. I really appreciate this article. Very few people get how frustrating it is to be talked “down” to.

  3. Totally, totally get this. I am 47, with two science degrees and almost a masters in architecture. I have 20 years of professional experience under my belt, and consider myself to be a genuine, hardworking, reasonably intelligent person with a keen sense of logic. Like Christine, I am at the point of looking to start my own consultancy. And like Tina, I too am utterly exasperated with of being talked over and not taken seriously by invariably older, white tall men with a fraction of the formal training I possess, and a lifetime of gaining access to positions apparently reserved for them because they are quite simply male and tall…thereby granting them the opportunity to climb the career ladder that has thus far eluded me. I can only put it down to my height…I still get spoken to as though I am a child.

  4. Great post! I’ve been keenly aware of experiencing a lot of this, throughout my life. My face also looked younger, most of my life, so I frequently was spoken down to or spoken over or my opinions were ignored. Also, was called cute most of my life, which I owned for a good long time (In my 50’s, I’m old enough that I no longer look cute). In the past 10 years, I’ve joined the ranks of invisible older women, which is tough, when my personality thrives on recognition and being seen. Ah, well, Covid is preparing us all for a new chapter in life!

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