Shorter height, lower salary: Height discrimination is real, and can be economically devastating

Though little-discussed, there is a profound wage gap separating the short and the tall

By Matthew Rozsa

Staff Writer

Published January 19, 2023 11:59AM (EST)

Measuring, two businessmen stand sideways on both sides of the ruler (Getty Images/z_wei)
Measuring, two businessmen stand sideways on both sides of the ruler (Getty Images/z_wei)

It pays to be tall — and not just metaphorically. 

A 2020 study in the scientific journal PLOS One analyzed economic data from over 3,500 Chinese adults and found that every additional centimeter of height was correlated with a 1.3% increase in a person's annual income. In Imperial units, this would mean that a 5' 6" person making $50,000 every year would earn an additional $2,000 for each extra inch of height.

The 2020 study is one of many that sheds light on a little-discussed but very real example of discrimination. For hundreds of years, human culture has been methodically committed to the civil rights project of understanding and dismantling discrimination — and legislation worldwide has sought to undo such ills as they apply to gender, race, ability, weight, and sexuality. Height, and its astonishing implications for quality of life and prosperity, are far less discussed, despite numerous well-researched studies pointing it out.

 "Height discrimination does not fit the mental discrimination prototype that most of us hold. It is usually not intentional; its harm is not very perceptible and it has an unconventional form."

Intriguingly, height discrimination seems to be inextricable from one's gender: men, evidently, face more severe social and workplace penalties for being short compared to women. Meanwhile, there is a more self-evident connection between height and poverty. Understandably, those who are malnourished or hungry often as children are apt to be shorter anywhere in the world. The authors of the aforementioned PLOS One study found that genetic markers correlated with height were also linked to higher cognitive ability and a lack of depression, thereby revealing how a healthy early environment helps humans develop into their full potential in every way— including with their height. (Of course, this is not to say that being short is always due to the physical and emotional traumas caused by poverty and marginalization. Some people are, in fact, genetically destined to be short.)

Reading this far, you might be wondering how heightism exists in the real world. Probably few employers consciously pay short people less than tall people; and yet, a pay gap persists. So how is this not noticed?

"According to socio-psychological research, similar to the perception of objects (such as a table or a chair), we decide whether a certain behavior is discriminatory or not by using a mental template of discriminatory behavior," Dr. Omer Kimhi, associate professor at University of Haifa's Faculty of Law, wrote to Salon. "Our brain holds a kind of prototype of how discrimination should look like, and in order to determine whether a certain behavior/outcome is discriminatory, we compare the incoming information about the behavior to the mental discrimination prototype we have."

Kimhi argues that, to address heightism, people need to start by "naming" the phenomenon — that is, "recognizing harmful experiences they suffer as related to height discrimination." The challenge right now is that "height discrimination does not fit the mental discrimination prototype that most of us hold. It is usually not intentional; its harm is not very perceptible and it has an unconventional form both in terms of perpetrator/victim and in terms of the domain in which it takes place."

To comprehend how heightism can be both demonstrable and elusive, one need only look at the history of the United States. If you examine the heights of the 45 men who have served as United States president, one fact becomes immediately apparent: They are usually taller than the average American. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the average American man today is 5' 9" tall, and since the average male height has gradually risen over the past two centuries with improved living conditions, this means that some of the early tall presidents were actually even taller relative to the norms of their day. Overall 32 of the 45 American presidents were taller than 5' 9". The average presidential height is 5' 11". Only three presidents — Martin Van Buren, Benjamin Harrison and James Madison — were 5' 6" or shorter. By contrast, nearly half of America's presidents (19) have been at least six feet tall, and all of the presidents who were shorter than 5' 9" were elected before the 20th century.

That last statistic perhaps speaks to the pernicious nature of height discrimination. Though not widely discussed in conversations about prejudice, it is telling that not a single American president has been elected in the television era unless he was at least 5' 9".

A massive body of scientific literature proves that when humans discriminate based on height, it is often because of a primal instinct which associates body size with leadership ability. The complicated answer involves a natural impulse within the brain. 

"I believe the origins of height discrimination are evolutionary," Kimhi wrote. "The human species has lived in hunter-gatherer tribes of 5 to 150 people more than 99 percent of its existence. Within these tribes members had to fight with each other over scarce resources, the larger-sized males usually prevailed and were regarded as the leaders of the group."

Just as animal groups tend to be dominated by the largest and strongest individuals within their herd, human beings seem to instinctively assume that bigger and stronger people (disproportionately male) are going to be intangibly "better" at everything they do. To understand how this happens, one must go back to 1992, when social psychology researchers Jim Sidanius, Erik Devereux, and Felicia Pratto coined the term "Social Dominance Theory" (SDT). SDT holds that societies tend to be organized as systems of intersecting group-based social hierarchies. Racism, sexism, classism, ableism, anti-LGBTQ prejudice and all other forms of systemic discrimination can ultimately be traced back to these tendencies. Individuals in the dominant groups wind up accruing "positive social value," which ranges from wealth and political power to a luxurious lifestyle and the presumption of high social status.

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Outgroups, on the other hand, receive "negative social value" and wind up with little power, little money and little social status, with all of the hardships and lack of pleasure that accompany such a lifestyle.

When you consider that being short is often caused by injustices like poverty and discrimination, the loss of income due to being short presents a profound social and political problem.

Indeed, the height-based bias on income is so quantifiable that at least one law scholar argues it should be considered illegal. To an extent, at least, it already is: The 1977 Supreme Court case Dothard v. Rawlinson ruled that height and weight requirements for an Alabama prison guard position were discriminatory because it could not be proved, for instance, that a guard had to be at least 5' 2" to do their job effectively. In a 2020 article for Connecticut Law Review, Kimhi pointed out that scientific research repeatedly demonstrates that humans "associate a host of positive qualities to those with above average height, and we belittle those born a few inches short. These implicit biases, in turn, lead to outright discrimination."

When you consider that being short is often caused by injustices like poverty and discrimination, the loss of income due to being short presents a profound social and political problem. According to Dr. Anne C. Case, an economics and public affairs professor at Princeton University, "people (both men and women) who are well nourished and healthy in childhood are more likely to hit their physical potential (height) and are also more likely to hit their cognitive potential — wiring up of bodies and brains takes place starting in utero." Although taller children will on average perform better on cognitive tests throughout childhood, "once one controls for cognitive test results from tests taken in childhood, the height premium in the labor market disappears." In a 2008 study for the Journal of Political Economy that Case co-authored, she wrote that "so much happens in utero and childhood that we should do absolutely everything we can to make sure every child is given a healthy start."

In addition to studies finding that height correlates to higher income, an increased likelihood of being promoted and generally being associated with strong leadership skills, there is also literature linking height discrimination to dating problems — as well as a huge number of anecdotes from singles. When a TikTok user shared a video in which she marked six feet on her door-frame in order to fact-check the heights of men whom she met online, her video aroused widespread anger among many users for being insensitive to the discrimination that might cause men to exaggerate their height. Researchers have found that height is associated with perceived masculinity and that men who said they were 6' 3" and 6' 4" received more responses on their dating apps than men who were described as 5' 7" and 5' 8". A 5' 6" South African TikToker named Alcidez Banda recalled how a woman told him that "if there's any man that is shorter than me, he's just looking for attention," conflating shortness with poor character and intrinsic ugliness, even if the remark was intended humorously.

"In a way, it could also affect our sense of self-worth because it's like, if you view short men as less compatible partners, why does that say about me if I only have short men rolling up in my DMs?" a female online dater named Rachael told BuzzFeed. "Does that mean that none of the top fine, muscular men are going to look [at] me?" Not surprisingly, this is why articles regularly pop up on the frustrations of dating while being a short man, with the advice ranging from the bleak to the hopeful. It may also explain why leg lengthening surgery, which involves a brutally painful process of breaking multiple leg bones, is increasingly popular among the super-rich who still struggle with being short.

Indeed, in discourse around dating, more than in any other online realm, the topic of height discrimination appears prominently. Though social media discussions around romance typically decay into toxicity and misogyny, the frequency with which the topic comes up may ultimately raise awareness around the more serious consequences of height discrimination — particularly, the wage gap, which actually can be socially and economically devastating. 

By Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a staff writer at Salon. He received a Master's Degree in History from Rutgers-Newark in 2012 and was awarded a science journalism fellowship from the Metcalf Institute in 2022.

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