In 2010, when Imran found work as a security guard at a private university in Karachi, Pakistan, he threw himself into it wholeheartedly. Working the graveyard shift, he strove to project assertiveness and protect the property from theft or vandalism, while also being friendly, as the first point of contact for early morning visitors.
It hasn’t all been plain sailing. At just shy of 5’2” (157cm), Imran is only a few inches shorter than the average Pakistani male. Yet workers trickling in have assigned Imran nicknames they consider funny. “Munna bhai!” one exclaimed, a local term of endearment for a small, young brother. “Bona,” called out another – Urdu for pygmy or dwarf.
Imran, whose full name is being withheld for job security, says he’s proud of who he is, and can ride out “ups and downs” related to his height. But there’s one area where he suspects his height has a particularly negative impact: his pay. “When it’s time for a pay rise, I’m compared to the new guards. I’ve served this institution for so long; I shouldn’t be in the same [wage bracket] as them.”
Nobody has linked the two outright, and even Imran sometimes wonders if it’s a figment of his imagination that his height has played a role in being passed over for promotion. But as he finds himself grouped in the same salary band as newly recruited guards for yet another year, he can’t help but wonder if evaluations based on his stature – not his work – are holding him back.
Height discrimination is one of the least-known or discussed biases, and one of the hardest to confirm. Like Imran, many wonder if making that leap is ludicrous, and question whether anyone could ever reasonably conflate short stature with negative qualities. Even those with ‘normal’ or above-average stature find it hard to believe they’ve ever held biases based on height or benefited from them.
Yet research shows that on a professional level, stature affects both men and women in tangible, albeit slightly different, ways. Studies show height correlates with higher income: recruiters favour taller candidates and height influences promotion opportunities. Research demonstrates we perceive taller men and women as more ‘leader-like’, deeming them more dominant, intelligent and healthier; tall men are more likely to attain managerial positions.
Still, heightism is an implicit bias, one we may subconsciously harbour or, indeed, internalise, without realising it. And it’s this covertness that makes it particularly difficult to eradicate.
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