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Heightism is a form of discrimination based on height. In principle it can refer to unfavorable treatment of either unusually tall or short people. In practice, heightism almost always takes the form of unfavorable treatment of shorter people and more favorable treatment of taller people. Examples of this include the above average heights of the great majority of US presidents and CEOs.
Heightism and bullying
Research shows that shorter persons are more likely to be victims of bullying. Not surprisingly, a bully will normally target smaller persons on the grounds that they are perceived to be less able to defend themselves physically. Because bullying during childhood and adolescence often undermines the victim’s self esteem, some researchers speculate that the lower levels of achievement of shorter people (particularly men) in later life may be partly or largely explained by this lower self esteem rather than by discrimination.
Heightism in employment
Some jobs do require or at least favor tall persons, including some manual labor jobs and many professional sports; and US military pilots have to be 64 to 77 inches tall with a sitting height of 34 to 40 inches. These exceptions noted, in the great majority of cases a person’s height would not seem to have an effect on how well they are able to perform their job. Nevertheless, studies have shown that short people are paid less than taller people, with disparities similar in magnitude to the race and gender gaps. Generally, height discrimination takes the form of covert discrimination, with people being passed over for promotion or denied jobs in the first instance.
A survey of Fortune 500 CEO height in 2005 revealed that they were on average 6 feet tall, which is 3 inches taller than the average American man. Fully 30% of these CEOs were 6 foot 2 inches tall or more; in comparison only 3.9% of the overall United States population is of this height. Equally significantly, similar surveys have uncovered that less than 3% of CEOs were below 5′7″ in height, and that 90% of CEOs are of above average height.
Some epidemiological studies have shown that intelligence is positively correlated with height in human populations (see Height and intelligence). This does not imply that many short people are not highly intelligent, or that changes in physical height have a direct effect on cognitive ability. Indeed, intelligence is believed to be influenced by many different factors, and individuals with a wide range of intelligence can be observed at any given height; it may be that good childhood nutrition tends to result in greater adult height, and good childhood nutrition also tends to result in higher adult intelligence. A recent study using four data sets from the US and UK found that after controlling for difference in cognitive test scores, there was no detectable independent effect of height itself on adult earnings, indicating that the height premium in adult earnings can be explained by childhood scores on intelligence tests.
However, others believe that height has a significant independent impact, pointing to specific instances of height-based discrimination. Subjectively, many short persons report they are not taken seriously in the workplace or by their peers because of their smaller stature. Objectively, surveys of attitudes do reveal that people both perceive and treat people of shorter stature as inferior, and that economic differentials exist which may be the result of height discrimination. The relationship between height, cognitive ability, and discrimination based on height remains a subject of debate.
Heightism in politics
Short candidates are disadvantaged in electoral politics at least in the United States (where statistics are available for study). Of the 43 U.S. Presidents, only five have been more than an inch below average height. Moreover, of the 54 US presidential elections only 13 have been won by the shorter candidate, and only 11 times has the shorter candidate received more popular (as opposed to electoral) votes. Quantitative studies of U.S. Senators and Governors have also shown that they are on average several inches taller than the U.S. population at large.
Non-electoral politics are more difficult to study as outcomes based on height are more difficult to quantify. Nevertheless, a number of powerful dictators have been below average height. Examples include Engelbert Dollfuss (4′11″; 1,50m), Deng Xiaoping (5′0″; 1,52m), Kim Jong Il (5′3″; 1.60m), Nikita Khrushchev (5′3″; 1.60m), Francisco Franco (5′4″; 1.63m), and Josef Stalin (5′5″; 1.65m). Contrary to popular impression, Napoleon Bonaparte at 5′6.5″ (1.69m) was slightly above average height for the time he lived. Adolf Hitler was also taller (5′8″; 1.73m) than has generally been assumed from fictional representations and some photographic records.
Heightism and conflict
Heightism is cited as one of the underlying causes of The Rwandan Civil War, in which approximately one million people were killed. It is believed that one of the reasons that political power was conferred to the minority Tutsis by the exiting Belgians was because they were taller and therefore (in the eyes of the Belgians) considered superior and more suited to governance.
Heightism in dating and marriage
Heightism may also be a factor in dating preferences. For most women, the height of a man is a major factor in sexual attractiveness. The greater reproductive success of taller men is attested to by studies indicating that taller men are more likely to be married and to have more children, except in societies with severe gender imbalances caused by war. Quantitative studies of woman-for-men personal advertisements have shown strong preference for tall men, with a large percentage indicating that a man significantly below average height was unacceptable. One example is male model Fabio Lanzoni, better known as “Fabio”, who famously appears on romance novel covers and stands 1.98m (6′6″).
One study made in the UK found out that women of below average height are more likely to be married and have children than women of above average height. Some reasons which have been suggested for this situation include earlier fertility of shorter women and that taller women could be more selective when choosing a partner than shorter women, therefore shorter women are more likely to find sooner a partner.
In a 2019 survey performed by Ipsos in Hungary with over 500 respondents, the perfect height for men for 53% of participants was between 1.78 m (5 ft 10 in) to 1.85 m (6 ft 1 in), while regarding female ideal height, 60% of respondents stated that it should be between 1.65 m (5 ft 5 in) and 1.75 m (5 ft 9 in), indicating a predominant preference for average to moderately tall height in both sexes. This cultural characteristic of confering relevance to height as an indicator of attractiveness, while applicable to the modernized world, is not a transcendental human quality.
It is unclear and debated as to the extent to which such preferences are innate or are the function of a society in which height discrimination impacts on socio-economic status.
Height discrimination legislation
Currently, there is one state in the United States of America, Michigan, that prohibits height discrimination. There is pending legislation introduced by Massachusetts Representative Byron Rushing which would add Massachusetts to the list. Two municipalities currently prohibit height discrimination: Santa Cruz, California and San Francisco, California. The District Of Columbia prohibits discrimination based on personal appearance. Ontario, Canada prohibits height discrimination under the human rights code. Victoria, Australia prohibits discrimination based on physical features under the Equal Opportunity Act of 1995. Examples of successful legal battles pursued against height discrimination in the workplace, include: a 2002 Chinese case involving highly qualified applicants being turned down for jobs at a bank because they were considered too short; a 2005 Swedish case involving an unfair height requirement for employment implemented by Volvo car company; and a 1999 case involving a Kohler Company informal practice not to consider women who applied for jobs unless they were at least 5 feet 4 inches tall. Height requirements for employment which are not a bona fide occupational requirement are becoming more and more uncommon.
Resources for short adults
The National Organization of Short Statured Adults is committed to the open discussion of heightism and sponsors a free message-board at http://heightism.aimoo.com In addition, Steve Goldsmith operates the Short Support website at www.shortsupport.org which has been providing the short community with valuable resources on heightism related topics since 2000.
- Science Blog: “Short children more likely to be bullied at school”
- “Short children are bullied more than normal sized ones”
- University of Pennsylvania, Arts and Sciences: “The Effect of Adolescent Experience on Labor Market Outcomes: The Case of Height” (PDF)
- U.S. Air Force ROTC: Admissions requirements
- University of Essex: “Beauty, Stature and the Labour Market: A British Cohort Study” (PDF)
- Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis: “So Much for That Merit Raise: The Link between Wages and Appearance”
- Short Persons Support: “Short guys finish last: Heightism”
- Slate.com: “Short End: Tall people Earn More Because They’re Smarter”
- Anne Case, Christina Paxson. “Stature and Status: Height, Ability, and Labor Market Outcomes”. National Bureau of Economic Research, Working Paper No. 12466, August 2006
- Blogspot.com: “Princeton Study Coorelates [sic] Height and Intelligence”
- The Gallup Poll: “Perception or Reality? The Effect of Stature on Life Outcomes”
- Short Persons Support: “Does Appearance Matter in the Labour Market?”
- The Straight Dope: “Does the taller candidate always win the election?”
- The Exile: “Burundi: Heightism rears its ugly head”
- Miami University of Ohio: “Don’t Want No Short, Short Man: The Study Of Height, Power, and Mate Selection”
- FindArticles.com: “Tall Men Do Get The Girl — Brief Article”
- Short Persons Support: “Personals Analyzer”
- BBC News: “Tall men ‘top husband stakes’”
- Clark, Daniel (2019). Height considered ideal for men/women in Hungary 2019.
- "How universal are human mate choices? Size doesn’t matter when Hadza foragers are choosing a mate".
- Text of the Elliot Larsen Civil Rights Act of 1976
- Text (PDF) of Massachusetts House bill 3752, 2006
- Chapter 9.83 of the City of Santa Cruz code – “Prohibition against Discrimination”, 1992.
- Text of Compliance Guidelines To Prohibit Weight and Height Discrimination; San Francisco Administrative Code Chapters 12A, 12B and 12C and San Francisco Municipal/Police Code Article 33, July 26, 2001.
- Text District of Columbia Human Rights Act
- Text Ontario, Canada Human Rights Code
- Text Victoria, Australia Equal Opportunity Act of 1995
- Chinese Height Discrimination Case
- Volvo Car Company Height requirement for employment
- Kohler Corp. Gender Discrimination Case
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