Not all short men do as well as Jamie Cullum. Photo: Everett Collection/

Friday 18th March 2016

Caught short

Why do we discriminate against small men?

Once, when wandering around Wimbledon town centre, I passed a church with a sign advertising its Sunday services. ‘People’s Service at 9’, the sign read. ‘Short People’s Service at 10.’ It took me a few moments to realise that ‘short’ referred to the length of the service rather than to the length of the parishioners.

Anyway, short people, and the service they receive, are big news this week. Researchers from Exeter University report that short men are paid less than taller counterparts. (The survey found a similar injustice befalls larger women, but that’s another story.) The researchers took data from 120,000 people and found men under the national average height of 5’9” inches earn around £1500 per year less than the big guys.

Sir Martin Sorrell: CEO of WPP at 5’4″

A case of short-changing? Well, yes. And this isn’t the only time academics have uncovered such discrimination. People Management points out that research from the Australian National University showed that men measuring 6’ expect to earn 1.5% more than a man who’s a comparatively lowly 5’10”.

Tim Frayling, a professor at Exeter’s medical school, asks of the discrepancy, ‘Is it down to factors such as low self-esteem or depression, or is it more to do with discrimination? In a world where we are obsessed with body image, are employers biased?’

In other words, is this just another rubbish bias or are short men actually a lot less use in the workplace?

Shorter odds

Shortness is knocking at the door of, but not being let into, the Diversity and Inclusion agenda. (The exception, of course, is when shortness is a function of a formally recognised disability.) To some short people, that’s just not fair: obese people can often lose pounds, they say, but no amount of diet or exercise will help short people gain inches.

Many short people appreciate the efforts made by Michigan, the one state in the US to have prohibited height discrimination through legislation. There’s also supportive legislation in San Francisco and Santa Cruz.

Don’t even think about asking short people about career progression. One 1980s survey found that more than half the CEOs in the Fortune 500 stood six feet or taller. Only 3% – less than one in thirty – were 5’7” or less. The relatively few short men to occupy the big seat include Sir Martin Sorrell at 5’4”, distiller Jack Daniel at 5’5” and industrialist Andrew Carnegie at a much disputed 5’3”.

Mr Jack Daniel, distilled to 5’5″

But even before you get to the C-suite, there’s evidence that short men have a harder time getting promoted. A journalist at The Economist, Jonathan Rauch, writes: ‘Looking at several professions, one study found that people in high-ranking jobs were about two inches taller than those down below, a pattern that held even when comparing men of like educational and socioeconomic status. Senior civil servants in Britain, for instance, tend to be taller than junior ones.’

Adding insult to injury, it still seems OK to take the mickey out of short people in a way it isn’t with fat people. Look at the hassle Jon Holmes gets on Radio 4’s The Now Show. And from the web: ‘Midget flag bearers have incredibly low standards.’ Even ouchier: ‘If Pluto isn’t a planet because it’s too small, then are midgets really people?’

Amidst all the joshing you’d do well to note the fury of short men. Here’s Joe Mangano, writing a few years back in an essay called ‘Heightism – the Last Bastion of Discrimination’:

If two men or women are competing for a job, and their qualifications are equal in every way, the taller person will get the job. Unless of course, the employer is looking for someone to push around, then the shorter person will be chosen… I’ve seen it time and time again. Their competency is questioned. Their ability is underestimated. They are overlooked or ignored. It’s so natural, people don’t even think about it. I believe in most instances short people don’t live up to their abilities.

In other words, HR, if you care about people reaching their potential, you should care about short guys.

Stigma or stupidity?

Back to the question posed by Exeter’s Professor Frayling. Is this discrimination, or is this indicative of taller people actually being ­– well, better than short ones?

Rauch opts for discrimination. He reports a study that, although it was held decades ago, would probably yield similar results today:

One of the most elegant height experiments was reported in 1968 by an Australian psychologist, Paul Wilson. He introduced the same unfamiliar man to five groups of students, varying only the status attributed to the stranger. In one class, the newcomer was said to be a student, in another a lecturer, right up to being a professor from Cambridge University. Once the visitor had left the room, each group was asked to estimate the man’s height, along with that of the instructor… Not only was the “professor” thought to be more than two inches taller than the “student”; the height estimates rose in proportion to his perceived status.

But there’s another study – much more problematic for diminutive complainants ­– that came out of Princeton in 2006. Economists Anne Case and Christina Paxson suggested that taller people earn more money because they’re cleverer.

As early as age three – before schooling has had a chance to play a role – and throughout childhood, taller children perform significantly better on cognitive tests… As adults, taller individuals are more likely to select into higher-paying occupations that require more advanced verbal and numerical skills and greater intelligence, for which they earn handsome rewards.

To put it bluntly, tall kids develop quicker and further, and they earn more money in later life because they’re more competent when it comes to high-performance roles.

If that’s is true, short people will need a miracle when it comes to achieving their dream of equal opportunity. Thankfully, I know a church in Wimbledon in which they’re invited to pray.

About the author

Andrew Baird

Andrew is the CEO of HRville. He is also Employer Brand Director of Blackbridge Communications, Editorial Director of Professionals in Law and an associate of The Smarty Train. Previously, he was the MD of TCS Advertising.