Patricia McGuire
University president

Patricia McGuire

President of Trinity Washington University.


Mindless prejudice

Q: In South Korea, parents are so certain that height is crucial to success that they are taking their children to growth clinics for hormone shots, acupuncture and other treatments. Do certain physical attributes give people an advantage as they strive for success in the workplace? Are short people at a disadvantage in business or politics or other endeavors?

Tall candidates almost always win presidential elections. Of the 28 contests for President of the United States since 1900, the taller candidate won 21 times.

Notable exceptions include George W. Bush (6 feet even) beating John Kerry (6-feet-4) and Al Gore (6-feet-1). Jimmy Carter (5-feet-9) eked out the election over Gerald Ford (6 feet), though a certain pardon of his predecessor might have reduced Ford's stature.
Richard Nixon, by the way, was, at half an inch under 6 feet, shorter than George McGovern by 1.5 inches, but still taller than the national average for men, which is 5 feet, 9.2 inches.

Until the election of the 6-feet-2 Barack Obama over 5-feet-9 John McCain, the measure of presidential height applied only to white men. President Obama challenged and beat an even greater physical barrier to success -- race. Hillary Clinton was unsuccessful in defeating another great barrier to success -- gender -- but the exploits of her 6-feet-2-inch husband, Bill Clinton, might have had something to do with her loss.

Appearance is a large factor in success largely because of prejudice against certain physical characteristics. Appearance is an accident of biology, but societies everywhere use physical characteristics as surrogates for intelligence, leadership and success.

In some countries, girl babies were killed because of their gender. In New Jersey, a fat man almost lost the race for governor. (Chris Christie eventually won in spite of his girth, beating the taller Jon Corzine, who should have addressed other issues instead of focusing on his opponent's appearance.) Girls starve themselves nearly to death in an effort to achieve the "perfect" body image --- a waif-like look that is popular among models and television personalities.

In the United States and elsewhere, the specific hue of skin color -- not only race itself -- has a large impact on the social perception of an individual and his or her chances for success.

Because discrimination based on personal appearance has such a profound impact on individuals' ability to get a job and to advance in the workplace, and to enjoy other social benefits such as access to public accommodations, a century of law and regulation has outlawed many -- but not all -- forms of bias based on appearance. Federal law prohibits discrimination based on race, color, gender and disability. And many local jurisdictions, including Washington D.C., have passed human rights laws prohibiting discrimination based on personal appearance.

Law, however, cannot stop individual prejudice. People make judgments about others all the time, and someone who looks unkempt or undisciplined or just plain ugly is unlikely to land the job or get the promotion. More insidious are the unspoken decisions that people make about others based on height, weight, skin color or gender. And let's be honest: People still make such decisions all the time, and without repercussion so long as they leave no paper trail.

Barrier breakers such as Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton illustrate the strategies for overcoming prejudice: Be the absolute best at your work. Voice ideas that are important. Don't let criticism stifle your brilliance. The will to succeed is a great antidote to the mindless prejudice against how other people look.

By Patricia McGuire  |  January 3, 2010; 10:25 AM ET  | Category:  physical appearance Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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As you clearly stated Pat, this is a problem that is real and occurs daily whether people choose to close their eyes to it or not. Goodwill of Greater Washington provides job training and employment services to people with disadvantages and disabilities. Many of the people Goodwill serves have spent much of their adult lives being discriminated against in the workplace due to physical or emotional disabilities, or other barriers to employment. This is why support of Goodwill's programs is so critical especially in today's economic environment when it is even MORE difficult for someone with a disadvantaging condition to find work. Thanks for shedding some light on what is obvious to those who experience this tragic reality every day, but often dismissed by those who don't.

Brendan Hurley
VP, Marketing & Communications
Goodwill of Greater Washington

Posted by: bhurlmeister | January 5, 2010 12:07 PM
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