As a petite person who works in a world of tall cabinets and high desks, I understand that the corporate world is not necessarily designed for people under 5″3. Not being the default is a small reminder that you do not belong at work, and these small reminders add up. A new survey from healthcare network BodyLogicMD of over 1,000 professionals found that our heights can influence how we feel about our work.
The professional height advantage
Height appears to give employees a boost of self-esteem. The shorter you were in the survey, the less successful and confident you were likely to feel. Men who said they were taller than average men, or at least 5″11, and taller than average women who were at least 5″6 said they were taken more seriously at work, compared to their shorter colleagues. The majority — 71% — of men and women who were taller than average also said they were more confident at work than their shorter than average peers.
We know we live in a society where physical appearance matters, not only because it shapes how people see us, but also how we see ourselves. Shorter professionals were also less confident about their earnings matching their worth. Forty-five percent of tall men said they earned what they deserved, while 33% of short men said the same.
The suspicion of not being on equal footing may be right. One 2004 study found that an employee who is 6-feet tall would be predicted to earn nearly $166,000 more over the course of a 30-year career than someone who is 5″5, even after controlling for gender.
Why do taller people get ahead at work? Researchers have come up with a variety of reasons for their advantage. Some believe it is a holdover of cavemen politics: an evolutionary response to wanting taller, stronger people to help us protect and get food during our hunter-gatherer days. Others bring up the fact that taller people may have gotten more of the key social skills needed from being picked more during gym class. Researchers on height during adolescence found that, “those who were relatively short when young are less likely to participate in social activities that may facilitate the accumulation of productive human capital such as social adaptability.”
I tend to believe that the height premium can also be a self-fulfilling prophecy. We are taught to see taller people as richer and successful, so they become that.
As Malcolm Gladwell wrote in “Blink”: “No one ever says, dismissively, of a potential CEO candidate that ‘he’s too short.'” He notes that “we have a sense, in our minds, of what a leader is supposed to look like.”
To move beyond the default of the ideal leader, we have to look beyond the surface of what success should look like. And that means learning not to just look up.