Heightism In The Workplace: How Height Discrimination Hurts Careers

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Heightism At Work: How Height Discrimination & Height Shaming Creates Shorter Career Opportunities, Lower Paychecks, Smaller Salaries, And Reduced Respect.

Being a shorter man myself, I've learned first-hand about heightism (prejudice or discrimination against someone based on their height, usually in men) from a young age. As a kid or teenager you are less likely to be chosen for sports, less likely to garner interest from the opposite (or same) gender, and more likely to be bullied or ignored by peers. Kids can be cruel, and anyone who is perceived as different or weak can become a target. Height shaming even pervades into high school, college, and into the real world as well.

But did you know that heightism carries over into adulthood and even into the workplace? Heightism can negatively impact your career, and doesn't have any preventative measures in place that someone facing religious, gender, racial, disability, ageism, or sexual orientation discrimination might have due to legislation and workplace policies. It can often result in shorter men feeling like they have to work harder and overcompensate for their "limitation". I have personally experienced this many times in my 20 years of working in the US in a variety of different industries. Heightism has been a noticeable factor in entry level, mid-level management, consulting, and entrepreneurial work.

It shouldn't be that way in business. It should be a purely merit-based environment where the quality of one's work is what's important, not height discrimination biases. Unfortunately the real working world isn't so simple and heightism is a real factor. 

Disclaimer: This article is not about heightism or height discrimination being the top concern in the workplace compared to bigger issues like racism, sexism, homophobia, religious prejudice, or harassment. It's primarily about heightism never being addressed or prevented and considered a joke overall. The stigma associated with shorter height is serious and can result in mental and physical damage or even suicide

I am personally in favor of preventing or minimizing all forms of discrimination, both personally and professionally, in a perfect world.

Legal vs "Illegal" Height Discrimination 

Almost all heightism at work is completely legal and the chances of getting your height discrimination case taken seriously by a judge, lawyer, jury, or even your own HR department is very low. 

The only real situation where heightism is "illegal" and a lawsuit can be filed is if you can prove that height requirements for a certain job were specifically created to exclude women and minorities from consideration. This has been the case in some military and police positions, but height requirements have luckily relaxed over the last couple of decades.

Most height discrimination is subconscious bias, behind closed doors, behind your back, or in text / email / water-cooler jokes... and its all completely legal. Let's take a look at why your short stature is often held against you legally.

The Napoleon Complex

Being a shorter man in the workplace or on the battlefield was made famous (and ridiculed) since 5'7" French military leader Napoleon Bonaparte's warpath hundreds of years ago started the "Napoleon complex" label of short men having to be overly aggressive to make up for their shorter stature. The term Napoloen Complex (or Short Man Syndrome / Short Man Complex / Manlet for those ignorant to history) is still to this day used jokingly any time a shorter man displays ambition and assertive behavior. 

Speaking of heightism history, it also doesn't help that shorter people and little people were viewed as freaks, curiosities, punchlines, and sport fodder for centuries by those of normal height.

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How Hard Is Heightism To Deal With At Work Compared To Other Discrimination?

Now let me be clear, heightism isn't more important than other types of workplace discrimination, and in a lot of cases it is far less significant compared to other types of workplace discrimination. I repeat, heightism is not usually as bad as other types of workplace discrimination such as racism, sexism, homophobia, and prejudice against ethnicity or religious beliefs just to name a few. This article is not trying to say otherwise. 

The point of this post is that you can't ignore that heightism in the workplace is a real problem with real negative consequences for shorter individuals. And there isn't anything in place to alleviate the issue for the foreseeable future.

While heightism is much less severe than other forms of workplace discrimination, heightism could be compared with discrimination against obese individuals or those with other cosmetic "imperfections" (as conveyed by the media and popular culture, not by me). 

Heightism Similar To Ageism And Weight Discrimination 

Compared to other forms of discrimination, height shaming to me most similarly resembles ageism and weight discrimination. All of these forms of prejudice are hard to prove and defend against.

But there are legal systems and policies in place to protect employees against ageism. There have also been countless lawsuits of overweight individuals being discriminated against. This rarely applies to those facing heightism.

The real difference is that you can lose weight and get cosmetic procedures done (not that you should, but that you could if you really wanted), but there is absolutely no way to get taller. You can have all of the money and determination in the world but you can't increase your height, aside from brutal bone lengthening surgical procedures that will do nothing besides causing pain and debilitation over time.

Top 3 Reasons Heightism Hurts Careers


Here are some of the ways that heightism can hurt your chances in the workplace: 

1. Less Leadership Opportunities 

Tech vs Non-Tech Business Leaders

While there are always exceptions to the rule like Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos (5'6") and Mark Zuckerberg (5'7"), the numbers don't lie. The vast majority of CEOs are over 6 feet tall, and the vast majority of other leadership positions are taller people. Shorter men are much less likely to hold a top C-suite level job. You might not even get hired at all for a job if you and another candidate are identical on paper but you lack the height that some managers associate with stronger leadership potential.

Note that the exceptions to the rule that I just named above, and other successful short business leaders like Sergey Brin, Gary Vaynerchuk, Jack Ma, and Satya Nadella are all either in the tech industry or are company founders / owners. Overall though most CEO's and business leaders are tall men. 

Politician Height In The United States

Even top politicians and U.S. presidents are taller men on average. The average US president height is 5'11" with most being 6' or taller, including every recent president since Jimmy Carter! The top contenders for the 2020 election are currently incumbent Donald Trump (6'3"), Joe Biden (6'), and Bernie Sanders (6'). Donald Trump has made fun of shorter political opponents several times already such as Vladimir Putin, Kim Jong-Un, and Marco Rubio. Trump even claimed that Democratic presidential candidate Michael Bloomberg required a box to stand on behind the podium in upcoming debates due to his "little" stature of 5'7". He's referred to Mike Bloomberg as "Little Mike" and "Mini Mike" many times during interviews seen around the world. Is it a coincidence that he failed to gain the Democratic nomination in favor of 6'0" Joe Biden? Probably, but it's still not surprising if for no other reason than a 5 inch height disparity.

Height Impact In Acting And Athletics

Heightism in the working world even goes beyond traditional employee roles. Actors, athletes, and even professional wrestlers are all denied roles due to shorter stature. Shorter male athletes in contact sports like football, hockey, rugby, and even professional wrestling have to take huge hits that will end up crippling their bodies and brains just to have a chance on the roster. Sure, a few roles / positions / sports are geared towards shorter men and women, but for every role favoring a shorter person there are 10 roles geared towards a taller professional. 

Need some interesting examples of height discrimination effects in the acting and athletic world? James Mcavoy has been turned down for multiple movies due to his height. Tom Cruise lost his role as Jack Reacher because his short stature made him less convincing. In the comic books Wolverine is supposed to be 5'3" but his role was given to Hugh Jackman who is 6'3" for broader appeal. If you are a 5'5" or shorter male like Elijah Wood or Sean Astin you might be considered casting material for a hobbit, elf, dwarf, or some other creature in the fantasy genre. So if these heightist issues persist for actors at the top of their craft, they are certainly pervasive at the lower levels of the acting world.

Shorter NFL players like Julian Edelman, Danny Woodhead, Danny Amendola, and Wes Welker (I'm a Patriots fan, can you tell?) are pressured into playing the risky slot receiver role where they routinely get their brains bashed in catching passes across the middle of dangerous territory, and honestly I worry about CTE brain damage as the years go on whether they are retired or not. Shorter wrestlers like Chris Benoit and the Dynamite Kid pumped themselves full of steroids and performed brain-damaging moves for years to make up for their shorter stature relative to others in the industry... and things didn't go so well for them in the end as a result. You could go on and on with endless examples of shorter height negatively impacting athletes and other non-traditional careers. Again, if this can happen to multi-millionaire top stars, this is happening daily to tens of thousands of shorter athletes at lower levels. 

2. Lower Average Salary

Along with less leadership opportunities and a more conscious or subconcious discrimination comes lower pay. A study in Australia found that taller individuals make an extra $1,000 per year, but US and UK studies found that taller men earned an extra $800-1,000 per inch of height above average!

Yes that is mostly the result of not reaching the highest levels in the C-suite or boardroom, but not completely. Bosses may decide that regardless of your role in the company, you deserve to be paid less or given smaller / less frequent raises. They may think that you have less options to leave the company and therefore don't need to be compensated as much as a taller person in your same situation. Maybe they count on you having lower self-esteem and just accepting your current job responsibilities and compensation. 

Whatever the psychological reasoning, the fact is that on average taller people earn more than shorter people.

3. You Are The Target Of Office Jokes

Much like the sexism that a lot of women face in the workplace, a shorter individual is "damned if you do and damned if you don't" in certain work scenarios. Some women are unfairly viewed as "bossy" if they show ambition and backbone while male counterparts are viewed as "assertive' in the same situation. If they don't show ambition then they are considered pushovers. 

Shorter men that show ambition and assertiveness are labeled as having a Napoleon complex. And if they don't show ambition, they are considered "beta males" and largely ignored for promotions or raises. You're damned if you do, damned if you don't.

A lot of taller men and women don't even want to work for a man that is shorter than them and often don't show them the same level of respect. In some cases, shorter individuals even become the butt of office height shaming jokes. If you're the target of height-shaming jokes in the workplace, chances are it will hurt your potential to move up in the company.

Shorter guys and girls really do get the short end of the stick when it comes to office politics and gossip. Height shaming still runs rampant in the workplace, so don't turn a blind eye.

Don't believe me? Just check out the height shaming posts on Reddit, Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and most dating websites.

Don't Let Heightism Hinder Your Career

While your shorter height can threaten to limit your career options, you can't let it thwart your potential. Here are some options to avoid the negative impacts of heightism on your career opportunities and earnings:

- Work as hard as you can... but don't be taken advantage of
- Become an indisputable expert in your field
- Be accepting and respectful of everyone
- Know your worth and stand up for yourself
- Stay out of unnecessary office gossip and politics
- If you aren't respected where you work then find somewhere else
- Create your own job or business if needed
- Rise over size!

My personal solution to heightism? After nearly a decade of various traditional job roles, I transitioned to work that was mostly online, remote, and/or entrepreneurial. When you work remotely or own your own business, the impact of heightism is often times more diminished. Now I do both, and height discrimination is much less of an issue in my working world. You might not have that same option to avoid height shaming in your current career, but you can be an entrepreneur in any industry.

Height discrimination is far from the only reason why I have transitioned to remote and entrepreneurial work over the last few years, but I'll admit it definitely was a factor.

Heightism In Certain Industries Is Getting Less Prevalent Due To The Internet, Technology, And Remote Work

While heightism will always be an issue, it is getting a little less severe in some professions because of the internet. There is so much work done over the phone, email, internet, video chat, text message, and other mediums that a lot of times you never even see the people you are working with. If you do, it's just a thumbnail, headshot, or a cropped video of them from the waist up. 

The internet has become a great equalizer for shorter people and anyone else that may face some level of height discrimination or other discrimination based on appearance. The better software, laptops, smartphones, cell phone signals, and Wi-Fi strength get means less in-person business and reduced potential height discrimination.

And now with the Coronavirus increasing remote work positions, heightism may slowly become less of an issue for some business professionals... at least for a little while. The Covid-19 pandemic will eventually become more manageable, and then some people will be back to work at the office IRL. But working remotely and WFH will be a long-lasting or permanent trend for many people, which is probably a benefit for many shorter men and women.

Be Accepting And Empathetic To Everyone At Work 

Although we have made a great deal of progress in the last century, there is still a lot of discrimination in and out of the workplace. One of the worst things you can do as a shorter person is to be offensive or discriminatory to anyone else. You must be as accepting, empathetic, and inclusive as possible inside and outside of the workplace.

Everyone's Experience With Heightism Is Different

This is just my own experience with heightism in and outside of the workplace as a 35 year old male in the United States. Other men will have different experiences, especially if they are older, younger, or work in different industries. Someone working in sales or management might deal with heightism more than someone working in accounting or computer programming. Shorter stature could be more of an issue for a police officer or construction worker than a mobile app developer. 

Someone who is 5'0" will probably have a different experience than someone who is 5'7". A man who is 5'5" will have a different experience in the U.S. or UK than they would in a country where average male height is much lower such as Mexico or China. Everyone's experience with heightism is different and should be respected.

Heightism For Shorter Women In The Workplace

Women may have similar or different experiences as their short male counterparts. Many women certainly have to deal with much more than height discrimination so that may not be their primary concern. Unfortunately sexism, sexual harassment, and glass ceilings are usually more pressing issues that women face compared with height discrimination. That's a very sad and sobering fact and it shouldn't be that way at work for anyone. 

But yes, heightism can also negatively impact women on top of every other obstacle they have to deal with at work. I don't claim to speak for anyone or compare my heightism experiences with anyone else's other prejudices faced, I just want to also put a spotlight on the issue of height discrimination towards both men and women in the workplace. 


heightism at work heigh discrimination little people office height shaming little person

Little People Face Much Tougher Height Discrimination

While men as tall as 5'7" and women as tall as 5'2" can face heightism at work, it can be much more severe for little people that are well under 4'10" in height. Height discrimination towards those with the medical condition of dwarfism can become a much bigger issue in the workplace. So if you are just a little shorter than average height and you think you have it bad at your workspace, know that a little person has it much harder. It's hard for little people not to feel height discrimination if their desk, office equipment, or other workplace items aren't easily accessible due to their shorter stature. 

Some politically incorrect height shamers even use the offense terms "midget" and "dwarf" when describing little people, or even those slightly below average in height. This name calling is unacceptable but unfortunately it still occurs in this day and age.

Heightism Can Affect Tall People As Well

In the spirit of fairness and inclusivity, yes heightism can negatively impact taller people in their workspaces as well. Very tall men 6'6" or taller and women over 6' can stand out among other employees and can become the targets of jokes or stereotypes as well. Height discrimination can even more significantly hurt much taller women since they may stand out more, and some men may be threatened by their stature.

But overall heightism almost exclusively hurts the careers of shorter men and women. Taller men aren't usually joked about as often or to the same extent because their height often makes them more physically imposing, and the same could be said about women to a certain extent. Short guys and shorter women again get the short end of the stick on height discrimination at work.

Heightism Can Heighten Other Forms Of Workplace Discrimination

As mentioned earlier in this article, there are many other forms of discrimination inside and outside of the workplace. Unfortunately, heightism can often add to existing discriminatory actions or biases at the office or workspace. If you are a shorter man or woman, you could be a bigger target for discrimination or biases for gender, race, religion, sexual orientation, or disability. Height discrimination can compound the issue of other more serious discriminations such as sexism, racism, antisemitism, ageism, and homophobia if your coworkers are so insecure and predatory that they view you as a weaker target of their bullying or bias.

Help To Hinder Heightism At Work

Regardless of your experiences with heightism at work, I cannot emphasize this enough: be as accepting and inclusive to everyone in your workplace. That is the only way that heightism and other forms of workplace discrimination will be reduced over time. Rise over size in the office throughout your career!

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