Is Taller Better? Explaining the Height Wealth Gap

Last year, a new study found that taller people are more likely to be successful in life, meaning they are more likely to hold important positions at work and earn higher salaries. Countless other studies have concluded the same thing – tall people do tend to enjoy more successful careers, which in turn leads to them earning a much higher paycheck.

But why is this? And can an extra few inches really be all it takes to get you a pay rise?

How much more do taller people earn?

The latest study, by the British Medical Journal, found that the difference between the average salary of a 5ft 7in man and a 5ft 10in man is £1,500.

Research from journalist-cum-social psychologist Malcolm Gladwell has found that one inch in height is equivalent to around $800 (£640) per year in salary, meaning especially tall people could be earning thousands more than their colleagues of below average height. As one researcher told Gladwell, over the span of an entire career, this disparity will add up to literally hundreds of thousands of dollars of earnings advantage.

Why do taller people earn more?

It would be downright bizarre if employees were being rewarded directly for their height. But perhaps they are being rewarded for a personality trait that often comes as a side effect of increased stature: confidence.

A particularly precient example of confidence’s correlation with height comes in the form of patients of limb lengthening surgery who undertake the procedure for cosmetic reasons, hoping to relieve their psychological insecurities. One 19 year old patient of surgeon Dr Guichet said: “I am much more confident. This lengthening changed my life.”

The connection between height and confidence is thought to be purely psychological, as tall people grow up in a world that values their height, and therefore feel good about themselves. According to two Guardian psychology writers, this all ties into the pervasive tendency to associate height with power. If those who are taller, and therefore likely more confident, apply for higher paying leadership roles, employers may be predisposed to feel they fit the bill based on these two factors, giving the taller candidate a healthier paycheck.

This psychological connection between height and power doesn’t end in the office; it goes all the way to the top. According to one scholar, the taller of the two candidates has won 58 percent of US presidential elections. These figures came out before Donald Trump defeated Hillary Clinton, but the 2016 presidential race was no exception, with the 6ft 3in Trump standing tall over the 5ft 5in Clinton. But of course, there were other physical differences between these two candidates—one is male and the other is female. Both of them are in fact above average height for their respective genders, but this might hold the real key to why taller people seem to earn more.

Is height the real reason taller people earn more?

Much more of a pressing societal issue than the height pay gap is the gender pay gap. In the US, women earn 79 cents for every dollar men earn. Already this disparity is looking similar to the gap between tall and short people.

Since men, on average, are 5 inches taller than women, it is worth examining all of these previous findings from a different perspective. As all of these studies are based on surveys of men and women, it would be more useful for us to see the original data and isolate the genders to see if this is having more of an impact on pay disparity than gender. Do short men still earn more than tall women? Do tall women earn more than short men? Does height make as much difference for both genders?

Without the full figures of these investigations it is impossible to know the real reason, but one way the gender divide is definitely relevant to difference in career success is not in height, but body size.

According to the 2016 study cited above, women with higher BMIs are likely to be less successful than thinner women. For men, however, weight makes a negligible difference on pay. For women, in fact, the study suggests BMI is a bigger factor than height. For men, height is still key.

What does this mean for job seekers and employers? 

Unless they too are willing to undergo stature-increasing surgery, there is very little job applicants can do to change the fact that employers may choose to hire taller candidates. Since some of the height advantage is linked to taller people’s increased confidence, the best approach for job seekers is just to make as much of a positive impact as possible can without letting nerves get the better of them.

Employers, too, should be wary of height bias, and take an objective approach to the application process. After all, no matter how tall a candidate is, there is no substitute for skill, experience and determination.

Photo Credit: Mimadeo Flickr via Compfight cc