Monday, July 26, 2010

Wuthering Heights

One of my best friends in grad school was an American guy, very smart, worldly, and wickedly funny. He was a joy to be around and had lots of friends, and he alone is probably to be thanked for half of my current idiom vocabulary. He also happened to be fairly short and often complained about difficulties with dating -- how many women would not even consider him seriously because of his height (he is now happily married, with kids). He also often spoke about how he felt that his height had caused him a lot of grief growing up and made him the object of bullying.

My friend was treated very badly by his PhD advisor: the advisor would dismiss my friend's work and berate him, yell and make fun of him in front of the group. My friend was quite traumatized by the whole graduate school experience but managed to get his PhD and not look back. We talked about it on occasion, and he basically said that his advisor bullied him just like he had been bullied in middle and high school, and that it was all because he was short.

I thought of my friend again after reading this comment on YFS blog. Basically, YFS indicated that, in her experience, taller women have to put up with less sexist behavior than shorter women, because men don't expect to easily intimidate them, and also that shorter men are given a hard time by taller ones.

So how much of a bearing does one's height have on one's professional relationships and career? Clearly, height has nothing to do with one's intellect, but if it does affect interpersonal professional relationships in a systematic manner, then by extension it will affect one's career.

I remember one faculty candidate we interviewed a few years back. He ended up not getting an offer, but every single person commented on how tall he was (over 6'5" for sure). So apparently this was something people certainly noticed when they first met him, although I don't think it influenced the hiring decision.

On the other hand, one of the most impressive scientists in my field is a man with very small stature. He's perfectly kind, but can be quite blunt and completely no-BS when it comes to technical issues. He is entirely awe-provoking and it is very hard to imagine that anyone would be able to intimidate this man.

For women, the issue of small stature, on average, is difficult to decouple from the overall condition of being female, and I have read multiple places that it plays into the overall perceived inferiority of women. One anecdote I can think of has to do with my good friend who's in a different department. We started at the same time and bonded over new faculty luncheons in our early years. She's very sharp, assertive, and successful, and also happens to be girly and petite. She gets a lot of sexist remarks and gets hit on by students and colleagues, so her academic life can be quite uncomfortable. A particularly annoying colleague is an old faculty member who keeps calling her "little lady". She said several times "If I were 6' tall, he would not be calling me little lady." That's probably true, although I think he would probably be using some other cutesy name to talk down to her anyway: as per FSP's related post, a 6 ft female friend (who was born a man and underwent a sex-change surgery) gets talked down to as a woman, despite her height.

So, dear readers, do you feel that height has a systematic effect on one's professional relationships and career? How does the issue of above-average or below-average height play into the careers of members of underrepresented groups, who face multiple unconscious biases and stereotypes? If you are taller or shorted than the average for your gender, has that helped or hurt your career or have you found it to be largely irrelevant?

26 comments:

Anonymous said...

As a confident, assertive, smart, and 6' tall women, I have had few to no problems with men trying to intimidate me.

I have many friends of various heights but have found a consistant trend in female height and how much other people bother my friends. The shorter they are, the more they are "picked on". I've even been with friends doing the same thing and my actions are not commented on while their's are.

Presidential results find the taller candidate usually wins - I think this is a common issue across genders and races, but I have few facts to support that.

It does increase my irritation with women who are not proud to be tall tho...
~Pharm Sci Candidate

Anonymous said...

I'm average height (5'6") but small boned and have people shorter than me frequently commenting on how "tiny" I am. I work in an environmental science field where there's a LOT of outdoor, physical labor involved and at least some risk from animals/weather/terrain. Ironically I think my field has less of a size issue than what I've heard of elsewhere. This may be because in general most of these men have spent time with women in the field and have realized how little height or overall body size actually affects physical performance and in particular stamina. After watching someone half your weight shlep equipment up a mountain pass faster than you it kind of gives them perspective. For me I think demonstrating my capabilities early (and swearing like a longshoreman) has generally kept the comments to a minimum and rarely have I had anyone try to intimidate me, even when they have a good foot of height on me.

Februa said...

Good post - it got me thinking. As a 5'6" female, I have never experienced anything about my height, Im as average as it gets where Im from. What came to my mind reading your post, is that I do tend to feel defensive and perhaps inadequate around very tall (6feet+) women. And very tall men. And short men. And short women...eep. Im not sure why this is, and while the emotional part of my mind is saying I have never treated these people or evaluated them differently, the logical part is telling me that any decision or judgement I make in the face of defensiveness or perceived inadequacy is probably not as objective as Id want it to be...

I hope to read in the comments that this is not as major an issue as I suspect it is now that Ive closely thought about (admitted?) my own perceptions...

Bashir said...

Aren't there plenty of studies on the relationship between height and career outcomes? I recall the findings being an overwhelming "yes the two are related".

engineering girl said...

5'5" female...my height has generally not been a problem. I have led a group of 6 foot tall guys before in a project, and they all listened to my input. On the other hand, if I have no clue what I'm doing, I have no problem taking orders from someone who's 5'1". One of my TAs for this one class I took was a 5'6" guy, and I was always impressed by his intelligence. I learned a lot from him, and I'm pretty sure his height did not hinder my learning. In the same class, one guy in my group was 5'5", and one guy was 6'6", and they both respected each others ideas.

Perhaps height affects career performance because it affects your confidence, and therefore it affects how people treat you? I have known tall people who were embarrassed about their height, and as a result are always slouching and soft-spoken, and they were also never the ones to lead (even though they might have been perfectly capable).

Anonymous said...

Interesting post.

As a tall (5'11) female scientist myself, my supervisors have often been shorter than me. My PhD supervisor was a tiny woman and my current postdoc supervisor is a relatively short man. Not sure that I have made any observations about that may have influenced my career but it is true that sometimes one does think that some conversations are easier sitting than standing over them. or with them on the other side of the room so that you're more at "eye level". :)

I am proud to be tall but it definately takes a young girl/woman time to "get over it". I still feel like a giant when I stand near those tiny people.

Being tall and a woman already goes against the sterotypical image of the delicate female which strangely enough part us of still craves for. Now add scientist to the mix and you're a pretty wierd person.. :)

As so many other things, height is probably just a factor if you make it one. If you decide it's a weakness, then it can become one. if you decide it's just how you were born, then it just is something you live with (adjusting the benchchair so not kill your back) and if you decide it's an advantage then just make sure not to look too far down at the shorter ones. :)

Dr.Girlfriend said...

I am 5'9, but I have not always been of average height. I stopped growing at 14 yrs of age. I was a freak from the ages of 11-14, and conscious about my height well into my twenties. People certainly treated me differently back then, and my childish behavior was not tolerated as it was in my more normal sized friends. Because of my height I looked older and adults would treat me like I was a slow. My height certainly contributed to my low self-esteem as a young person, but I think that has more to do with being different and being treated differently than anything else. Once I realized that I was barely above average height I stopped feeling awkward and self-conscious and people stopped trying to push me around and treating me like I was stupid.

Anonymous said...

I don't quite understand where you are going with this. Are you really wondering about whether there is an effect of height on one's professional career in general? There are tons of studies out there looking at this, which a simple google search will reveal. (Most of which come to the conclusion that yes, there is a positive correlation between height and professional success, esp for men) Or are you interested in whether your readers have experienced these effects, independently of the larger trends?
It's your blog, so you can obviously write about whatever you want, I'm just still deciding whether I like it or not and I find some posts really interesting and then there are some others like this one where just wonder what your intention is. You just seem to be ignoring lots of peer reviewed publications to be wondering about a question.

Candid Engineer said...

@Anon, 2:17am: What a fucking drag to feel like you've got to google and PubMed everything before you blog about it. It's not like she's blogging about scientific facts here, she's blogging about her experiences and emotions.

I don't quite understand where you were going with your comment. Were you trying to contribute to the discussion, or were you just trying to be a doucheweasel?

Anonymous said...

re: those who say you're only at a disadvantage if you're short if you feel like you are. My guess is you are not a short man.

As a short man, I can tell you that I never started out lacking confidence--in fact at first when i was a kid I figured women would all love me for my irresistible charm and charisma. However, it is my experience that (all things equal) women tend to look at, talk to, and follow taller men.

After you notice this happening over and over, then yes it may have an adverse effect on your confidence. I'm actually 5'8" so I can only imagine how much worse it is for a 5'5" guy.

GMP said...

@Anon at 2:17 AM: I am quite apt at googling, using Web of Science, PubMed etc, and so is everyone who comes here; thank you for your concerns. But out of respect to our colleagues from the humanities and social sciences, let us not assume that a 2 second google search is infallible at revealing the actual most relevant studies on any given topic (as I know it doesn't in my field). I do not want to pretend to know what the reputable journals are where this type of work would be published or which studies are truly relevant. If a reader who specializes in the humanities/social sciences wants so share a few vetted and significant peer-reviewed references about the topic, they would be most welcome. But I am certainly not going to claim scholarly competence on the topic; however, I am perfectly within my rights to share a few anecdotes and invite the readers to share their own.

The purpose of this post is to invite a discussion about people's experiences, as indicated by the last paragraph in the post. I love anecdotes and love blogosphere discussions. And often, issues such as height are not on people's radars unless you read or hear that it has impacted someone personally. I find that personal stories are very efficient at getting me to think about issues.

You probably dislike posts like this one, as they are not declarative -- I don't give "an answer" or a conclusion. Rather, I throw a couple of thinking points out there and see what people's reactions and experiences are. (Notice that I also don't say anything about my own height and if it had an effect on my career.)

A number of people make snide remarks on blog posts that invite reader input (not just my blog but elsewhere), as in "duh, this is obvious." In the vast majority of cases, the blogger already has a well-formed opinion and/or knows what it is that he/she will do, but wants to get people's input and simply bounce off a few ideas. Women in particular (granted, this is stereotypical) are more likely to freely ask for input and bounce ideas around. Men are much more likely (again, stereotypically) to interpret a question or invitation for input as "you don't know what to think or do, that's why you ask" and then go on to attribute a weakness to the one asking the question.

Anyhoo, some people like being included in discussions, others enjoy essay-type posts. Some would probably like it if I wrote more about kids and family, some would probably like even less of it. Some want more know-it-all academic advice, some want less of that and more personal stories. People want and get different things from different blogs.

I am sorry that you find my blog such a mixed bag, but it is what it is.

Dr.Girlfriend said...

"You just seem to be ignoring lots of peer reviewed publications to be wondering about a question"

OMG if did a literature search before I pondered every little idea that came into my head I would never get out of the door morning.

We are scientists, but we do not do science 24/7.

Just like everyone else, we scientists have random and partially developed thoughts and it is fun to share them before deciding if we want to explore further or not.

Despite your claim to have read some of the literature in this field you would rather be a bitch than bring anything meaningful to the conversation.

Anonymous said...

@CE
GMP's question
So how much of a bearing does one's height have on one's professional relationships and career? Clearly, height has nothing to do with one's intellect, but if it does affect interpersonal professional relationships in a systematic manner, then by extension it will affect one's career.

Does not sound like blogging about experiences and emotions but about scientific facts.
So my point was the following. Firstly, I'm wondering whether she is wondering about scientific facts or wants to hear her reader's experiences about it. In the first case I tell her there are studies about it and the result of the majority of them, which is a contribution to the discussion. (In the second case I don't have anything to add, given that I'm average height.)
And the second part of my point is that I'm confused about whether this is a question about scientific fact or emotional experiences because it reads like the first in a medium that seems to be suited much better for the latter.
Anon @2:17am

Anonymous said...

Sorry for the last post I had only seen CE's answer before writing my second comment. Thank you for answering my question, GMP. I really wasn't sure what you where interested in from your phrasing.
anon @2:17

Anonymous said...

The absence of any comments so far from *really* short people (close to five feet even) is striking. Are there fewer of us? I am one of these petite women who might end up being slightly girly (ironically, because I started powerlifting and biking really hard, and so skirts fit so much more easily than pants given my five-foot short-waisted muscled-thigh self). I think it does affect how people look at me, especially in teaching situations. These college students who are all a foot taller don't know me and can't judge my competence accurately, so they often do start by underestimating me. This may be why I always have a tussle or two over "dominance" with the wannabe alpha male of the class near the beginning of the semester. Then it all evens out. It is hard to differentiate the height from the femaleness from my particular looks, too, which are pretty stereotypically "not smart" in America.

engineering girl said...

Anonymous 8:54am:

I think it's necessary to distinguish between height having an effect on career performance, and height having an effect on dating. I assumed GMP was talking about career performance, and having worked with shorter and taller people just fine (as I described above), I don't think it adversely affects career performance if you don't let it.

Dating...is a whole other issue. I will admit, I tend to be attracted to guys who are taller than me (but hey I'm only 5'5", and some of my taller girl friends are perfectly fine with dating guys their height or shorter). I'll take a short guy or girl seriously if they're my boss no problem, but maybe you have a point, I am more attracted to taller guys to date. But one of my 5'7" guy friends gets a ton of girls. And while you're lacking confidence because you're 5'8", some 6' guy might be lacking confidence because he's slightly overweight or not attractive.

FrauTech said...

I'm an average 5'5" woman. My last boss (male) was shorter than me, as was the boss before that (female) and I'll admit I found it a little weird. It wasn't like I had a problem taking direction, I just always found it strange, like somehow *I* had to compensate for it by being "too tall". There's a lot of very short and very tall guys around here. I almost wonder if the 6'5" guy who interviewed didn't get hired due to a few insecure, shorter men. I know plenty of very short and even average sized guys who are very insecure about their height.

Sometimes when I'm dealing with women who are shorter than me I start to feel very large, oversized or even sort of clutzy. As well with taller women I sometimes feel more childlike. But I haven't noticed the disparity as much with men, maybe because I work with many more men than women our size difference isn't as obvious to me. I think it's true taller people can do better in their careers (there are studies, heh) but I also think if you're unusually tall it could hurt you just as much as being unusually short. I suspect there's a wider range for forgiveness in women (probably penalized no matter the height) but agree that shorter women probably take more crap and that especially tall women probably don't always have it easier. Human nature to look for differences and to feel threatened by them :/

Anonymous said...

@engineering girl
you are right that there is a difference between height affecting career and height affecting dating.

However, my point was really that height can affect the building of your self confidence which can definitely affect your career. Especially at a the younger/teenage years where confidence can be at a particularly vulnerable and where indeed realizing the limits of your dating pool may be smaller than you wanted. not to mention that awkward phase of long arms and long feet + uncoordination.. I'm so happy that phase is over. :)

But confidence is affected by lots of things, I'm sure- you can't get much shorter than you are but hopefully you can feel more competent about things you can do.

so I have to remind myself today as I look at some job ads that look incredible but worry about applying because of imposter syndrome.. :/

lawrenceofacademia said...

Career performance and dating potential appear to be linked in subtle ways. One study suggests that in certain academic situations, attractive candidates may be at an actual disadvantage when evaluated by average-looking members of the same sex (who consciously or subconsciously view them as competition).

Anonymous said...

Nice discussion. I'd like to join the conversation. As a 5'5'' woman I've observed things go better for me when I wear high heals making my height 5'7'' or so. Could be just the extra confidence of being dressed up. But the effect is sufficiently real to take into account in career planning.

Anonymous said...

My height is average, and never think about it. It is not something that consciously affects my interactions professionally, and I have dated taller and shorter men.

HOWEVER.... I'm MUCH more worried about my weight and how that affects my career and personal life. I'm pretty sure being on the extreme ends of the body weight spectrum has a much more massive effect on confidence and how one is perceived by others. You can't change your height, but weight is entirely under personal control, right? (Not that it's easy to change your weight!) I think that the situations described above based on height are magnified when it comes to weight although they might be different, and there are interactions effects. For example, the alpha male student may not try a power play with an obese 5' female professor, but might with a slender one.

Anonymous said...

As a 6' woman, I have to agree with YFS. It's amazing how much BS goes away when I stand up straight and snarl.

I think people avoid playing dominance games with someone who is a physical threat. It's hard-wired. Even if the other person isn't likely to fight (no, I'm not going to smack you if you point out my sign error, even if you're rude).

Once people subconsciously respect you, they are much more likely to find conscious reasons to respect you. (Confirmation bias FTW.) And even if they don't, they generally stay out of the way. Small people can learn to produce this response, but it's not as automatic, especially for women.

Unbalanced Reaction said...

Anon 9:28 hits it right on: a woman's height DEFINITELY plays a factor in the classroom, at least for younger faculty. I am a head taller than almost all my students, and I have NEVER had an issue with them respecting me in or out of the classroom.

My shorter colleagues, however, consistently complain about disruptions in the classroom.

Obviously, you it's hard to REALLY tell if the difference in height is really the issue here. (It could, I suppose, just be that I am just really awesome...heh.). I'm really happy with my height, especially in heels. :)

former post doc now in industry said...

some might be a thing about the height but I think mainly, if you are not male under 5'5'' and a woman under 5'3'' (maybe) or male over 6'3'' and woman over 5'10'' since that would make you "outside of average", it's about your appereance (some call it attitude). That said, I had some funny things going on with former male supervisors/PIs who were shorted than I am... I don't know if it was me being taller or me being in good physical shape, i.e. it wasn't obvious who'd win in a real fight.

I've noticed though, never mind cleavage and average height of 5'7'' as a woman, that I tend to get a "huh..." and less BS when the kickboxing as a hobby comes out... so, maybe it is something that can be "won" with a certain physical attribute, if you're short maybe it's more important to be fit/good at something physical in order to "prove" yourself? Of course, all this implies that our physical appareance does make it different unless you are old and have tonnes of N/C/S papers to back yourself up with.

In the end, I guess it is a bit about the "threat factor", whoever much I despise the idea...

my two cents.

Anonymous said...

I'm 5'2" and petite in build, currently in my early 30s. I also am quick to laugh and joke. It has absolutely affected how I assert myself. I am much more conscious of it since i've been in my asst prof position. I have to make up for these things to be taken seriously. People always do a double take when they see me with my name badge on at conferences. It makes a huge difference in the classroom too. I swear by shoulder pads on the 1st day of class. Students instinctively become informal with me. I also seem to get students coming to me with personal problems (incl serious nervous breakdowns, lots of tears) more than average... I am in fact not a very nurturing, warm person but a lot of people assume I must be because I am a petite female. I guess I seem harmless :-)

Anonymous said...

I am a 5'4" man, working in Sales / Strategy area in the Engineering field, and if you ask me if the height affects the career, I will strongly say yes. Here in Western Europe, people have a different point of view of looking at things. The taller and good-looking you are, more the things get easier for you. People tend to trust you more, tend to give you responsibilities. It sometimes is like all your hardwork and intelligence is of a lower importance than your height. I have been continuously discriminated, looked down upon, sometimes had to see not so capable but good-looking people getting higher responsibilities (perhaps that is the reason the world is facing financial crisis :))

It is not that a small man will fail, but just that we have to work our way a lot harder than others. One has to be thick skinned, political and witty. Some taller individuals have an inbuilt thinking that being tall, they are better than you in every respect & when you get something in your favour and they don't (inshort, when you show them their place), they say - "you have a nepolian complex". In my career, I have learned one thing. Don't think about what other say or think. They just do not matter. Just be yourself, live your life, do things you always wanted to do and work hard towards your goal. This does not solve all your problems, but when you live the way you want to, you gain a lot of confindense to face the world.

Just an advice from a short man to others of same kind, Hope it helps..Best of Luck!!