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The Tyranny of Tallness Advantage of Height Extends to Workplace, Too

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Let's be honest. It's a tall world, after all.

For starters, consider the popular fiction we enjoy telling our kids, that every child has a chance to grow up to be president. The fact is, he'll have to grow up an awful lot.

Rarely in recent American history has the shorter presidential candidate won a national election (the most recent example being George W. Bush in 2000. Al Gore is 6 foot 1; Bush is 5 foot 11).

And for reasons not altogether clear, the vertically gifted are more often considered "smart" and "trustworthy" by others, regardless of their IQs or their integrity. Self-assured tall people are "capable" and "confident." Self-assured short people are "pushy" or have a "Napoleon complex."

The "talls" --- those above the national average of 5 foot 9 for men and 5 foot 4 for women --- tend to have more sexual partners and, not surprisingly, a better shot at getting married and having more children. Adding insult to injury, taller people live longer and are less prone to strokes.

No segment of society is untouched by the tyranny of tallness. Grade schoolers learn early that bigger is better, especially when it comes to the torture of being picked last for sandlot teams.

In hip-hop culture, most rappers aspire to be "big ballers" and "Big Willies." As a sign that he's finally tall enough to be livin' large, the youthful rapper formerly known as Li'l Bow Wow recently dropped the diminutive appendage from his stage name. The tale of the tape measure is also told every year in Hollywood. Taller movie stars typically take home more of those adorably short Oscar trophies.

While it's obvious that not all tall people are successful, there's little question that successful people tend to be tall. About 60 percent of the CEOs in America are 6 feet or taller, compared with only 3 percent who are 5 foot 7 or shorter. Economic plus

The advantage bestowed on tall people is a persistent phenomenon plainly evident in most modern societies, pre-industrial tribal communities and local Rotary clubs.

Researchers long ago concluded that when it comes to height, the familiar minimalist arguments that less is more simply don't measure up. A recent study has for the first time placed a dollar figure on exactly how much more being tall is worth in the workplace.

Every inch of additional height accounts for roughly $789 a year in extra pay, researchers Timothy Judge and Daniel Cable reported in October. So a 6-foot-tall employee can expect to earn about $5,525 more per year than a 5-foot-5 co-worker.

Judge, a 6-footer himself, has been intrigued by the on-the-job trends favoring taller workers that are difficult to explain and impossible to ignore. Even when short people are equal to their taller counterparts in objective measures of intelligence and self-esteem, Judge found, height remains an overriding factor in salary disparities regardless of the type of work involved or comparable experience.

Age doesn't seem to matter, either; short people in their 40s are victimized by "heightism" just as much as short people in their 20s.

The nagging question then, at least for those who keep getting the short end of the stick, is why?

Theories abound. Some scientists contend that height preferences are a throwback to the dawn of human evolution when larger (read: taller) individuals may have had better odds fighting off infection, competing for food or eluding predators. There's a good chance that genetic trait continues to be passed down to the progeny of tall people and remains an unspoken marker to other members of the species to broadcast sexual fitness to potential mates. Link to nutrition

George Armelagos, an anthropology professor at Emory University, said there is a direct link between increases in height and the fairly recent development of modern agriculture and food production.

Armelagos has documented a steady rise in stature that seems to have begun around the same time farming become a widespread human activity. As the size of the family increased, so too did the people who were consuming it.

"Since World War II, there has been a secular trend all over the world showing an increase in stature, which means there has been an improvement in nutrition," Armelagos said. "In Third World countries where the population is not receiving the same level of nutrition, there is still the assumption that the taller person is the healthier person."

Armelagos said the first wave of immigrants to America's shores from poorer, European countries were pleasantly surprised when their offspring eventually towered over them --- and he's living proof. The son of Greek immigrants whose mother was 4 foot 8 and whose father was 5 foot 2, Armelagos stands 5 foot 11.

"In my experience, all that seems to matter in most cultures is that you're tall, dark and handsome, even if you're a dolt," Armelagos said. "Of course being rich always helps. Just look at Bill Gates." Slow-growth trend

After successive generations of unbroken vertical growth, the height of U.S. citizens appears to have leveled off, perhaps as a result of an influx of shorter immigrants. Only about 5 percent of American men are 6 foot 2 or taller, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. Women who are over 5 foot 10 make up less than 1 percent of the population.

But that slow-growth trend hasn't stopped some from going to great lengths to get taller. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration recently approved injections of human growth hormone for those who have not been diagnosed with a disability, such as dwarfism, but still qualify as "idiopathically short." The shots are administered monthly, mostly to younger children, and have been shown to add about two inches in height. The cost for the full treatment is about $20,000 --- or about $10,000 an inch.

There's a far cheaper, albeit more gruesome option --- the $12,000 surgical procedure euphemistically called "cosmetic leg-lengthening." It's popular in China where height, or the lack of it, can prevent people from working as flight attendants or as translators in foreign embassies.

The surgery entails partially sawing through bones of the lower leg, then attaching metal braces equipped with steel pins that are used to slowly stretch the scar tissue that grows in place of the sawn bone. A successful surgery can add about 3 1/2 inches of height and usually requires three months of recovery.

Shorter Americans who don't have the money to travel to China (or the stomach to have their legs stretched surgically) shouldn't expect much help from the courts to counter the scourge of heightism. The Americans with Disabilities Act protects "persons of small stature" with a verifiable medical condition from being treated unfairly by employers. Everyone else is better off buying a sturdy pair of high heels.

"I don't think the government, or the courts, should be in the business of outlawing discrimination for every physical characteristic someone might have," said Steven Kaminshine, the 5-foot-11 associate dean of the Georgia State University Law School. "I've had a lifelong dream of playing for the New York Knicks, and I don't think I should be able to file an employment discrimination case just because I'm too short."

Copyright 2003 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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