person sitting at a table wearing over-ear headphones, looking at an open laptop screen and raising one hand as if saying hello on a video call (all set in a light box with a navy blue star in the corner against a blue background)
Bailey Zelena; PeopleImages/Getty Images

Heels or no heels? At 4’11”—fun-sized, as I like to joke—I’ve frequently sacrificed my feet to gain a few inches, especially in the office. You know the saying, “Dress for the job you want”? No matter where I’ve worked or in what industry, I need my coworkers to take me and my ideas seriously. So after seeing how pervasive and subconscious height discrimination can be in corporate, pumps and platforms became non-negotiables in my business casual wardrobe—until COVID hit and we all started working from home.

The rise of remote work during the pandemic was a turning point for countless reasons, but on a personal level, it was the first time nobody could literally look down on me. I started multiple full-time and freelance gigs from behind a screen, and it was refreshing to pitch, present, and delegate projects without anyone knowing I’m under five feet.

Height discrimination isn’t just in your head.

Tanya Osensky, a 4’10.5” attorney who’s practiced law for 25 years, believes her short stature causes people to underestimate her. “I’m the height of an average 12-year-old,” she says. “We assign certain characteristics to small people based on the automatic assumption that because they’re small, they’re like a child,” she adds. And “we tend to just treat people in accordance with their size instead of their actual age.”

When she shared this with me over the phone, I felt seen. Throughout my career—which spans junior positions and mid-level manager roles across media, entertainment, marketing, advertising, and tech—I’ve wondered how my coworkers perceive me compared to my taller peers. This isn’t the case with every company, and my performance certainly reflects my years of experience. But in a world where first impressions matter, when I’m shaking hands with someone new, can they see my leadership potential when I look like an intern at first glance? It was a relief to hear Osensky put words to what my gut’s suspected for so long.

“It’s things like being discounted. Your opinions are not required or asked for, or if you give them, they’re not given as much weight,” Osensky says about the “day-to-day” discrimination she faced. “My manager used to make fun of my height in business meetings, in front of my direct reports and my staff,” she explains. “It’s similar to how women in the workplace have been complaining for many years about the subtle discrimination, and it’s even more so for short people, including, of course, short women.”

Numerous studies dating back decades have researched heightism—an unconscious bias or prejudice on the basis of height—in employment decisions, taking into consideration potential confounding factors like sex, ethnicity, education, and so on. The TL;DR is that short people are paid less and face other disadvantages when compared to their taller counterparts.

Osensky, for example, discovered she was earning “significantly less, more than a few thousand dollars less” than her peers. Her experiences led her to dig deeper into related research and write the book Shortchanged: Height Discrimination and Strategies for Social Change. In it, she examines how heightism creeps up time and time again—in conference rooms and across culture more broadly—and points out that parents have even explored giving their kids hormones to help them get a literal boost as adults.

Working from home leveled the playing field.

Video conferencing doesn’t just hide your sweatpants. Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Google Meet—whatever software your company swears by—allow teams to look each other in the eyes, creating a more inclusive and accessible environment.

Logging on remotely is “a huge blessing” for Osensky, now in charge of her own law firm. “I’ve had the most wonderful feeling of not having to deal with that crap ever since COVID,” she says. Her 5’4” son recently went through a similar experience after graduating college. “All of his interviews were on Zoom, and he had no trouble getting a job. But when he went for interviews in person, he didn’t get a job,” she says. “We will never know what the real reasons were, but I think Zoom has really equalized things.”

The way I see it, if everyone is short on screen, no one is short. Heightism loses its power in virtual workplaces. If you have no clue how tall or short your new coworker is, how can you—implicitly or explicitly—discriminate against them? After getting laid off from my office job in February 2020, for example, I started a new job remotely that March. I don’t know what my wider team initially noticed about me when we met via Slack—maybe they quietly judged the painting behind my chair or wondered where I got my earrings from—but for the first time, it wasn’t how short I am.

Having the option to keep my height private—at least until I decided to share it with trusted coworkers who became friends over time—felt like freedom. My under-five-foot secret would slip out at a virtual happy hour turned heart-to-heart, or after months of bonding over a project. But whenever I revealed it, I did so on my own terms, and that made all the difference. I clung onto that small glimmer of agency in a year otherwise filled with uncontrollable dread and grief.

Anthony Acock, 5’7” and the chair of an art department at a large university, experienced “an overwhelming sense of crisis management” during the peak of the pandemic as his campus shut down and transitioned to online classes. “Being short wasn’t really on my radar as much as making sure my students weren’t suicidal or my faculty felt seen,” he says. As time went on and he continued working remotely, Acock genuinely forgot he’s considered short because of who he was spending time with IRL. “My wife’s quite short, I have two little kids who are short by being little,” he says. “Once classes [began] in person, most of the college students were taller than me, and I totally forgot that dynamic.”

Deepa Lakshmin poses for a photo in front of a reflective surface, wearing jeans, a black top, a black-and-white coat, and a purse
Courtesy of Deepa Lakshmin

What happens once you meet in real life?

Heightism can be especially tricky in leadership roles, and even more so when compounded by sexism or racism. Journalist and editor Priska Neely—a 5’2” manager who’s been told she has “tall energy” but is, in fact, shorter than most of her direct reports—sometimes wonders if people expect their bosses to be tall. “It happened in my last job,” she says. Perhaps we imagine everyone to be whatever our estimation of average height is, she speculates, “and when someone’s four inches shorter than that it’s like, ‘Oh wow, surprising.’” (Average height, for the record, is 5’9” for men and 5’3.5” for women, according to the CDC.)

For Neely, that gap between expectations and reality led to some awkward moments. She joined her current team remotely in September 2020 and started traveling to meet her coworkers in other states six months into the job. One of the first IRL reactions she experienced? One of the managers she spoke with regularly “saw me walking down the hall… cocked his head to the side and was like, ‘Huh, I didn’t know you were so short,’” she recalls. And she thought to herself: “Is that seriously the first thing that you’re going to say to me in real life?” Another coworker gave folks a heads up about her height in advance. “I don’t understand why this is a topic for discussion.”

That said, besides those offhand remarks, Neely says no one treated her any differently after meeting her in person. I’ve had the same experience when I finally met coworkers face-to-face after working together for months over video. I can’t know this for sure, but I suppose that by the time offices opened their doors, everyone knew the value I brought to the table. Before COVID, everybody knew I was short from the get-go. After COVID, they had a chance to get to know me and my work before ever interacting with me in person. Instead of needing to defy any unconscious underestimation of my abilities, I could hit the ground running and let my skills speak louder than my height ever could—right from day one.

Still, I was curious: Is the grass greener (and taller) on the other side? Shannah Phillips, a post-producer working in film and television, stands 5’10” and likes to wear heels “for confidence and, honestly, to meet the eyeline of my male superiors.” Conversations with her superiors shifted “once they knew I was a tall, broad woman,” she says. “Their demeanor changed in talking with me, and there was more respect. Super weird, but it happened on multiple occasions.”

Remote work obscures height, but it’s not a cure-all.

Acock’s height isn’t the only thing that tends to surprise people. In general, he doesn’t fit into the scholarly professor stereotype. “There’s a lot of things working against me professionally with the way I look,” he shares. “I don’t know if it’s because I’m short or because I dress like a 15-year-old or because I’m covered in tattoos, but people are always kind of taken aback by me when they first meet me.”

And some of those things are just as visible onscreen as they are in person. On video, we perceive everything we can from each person’s unique rectangle of pixels: their camera’s awkward angle, the collar or lack thereof on their shirt, their hairstyle, the state of their home in the background. Although Zoom calls may lessen heightism, they aren’t a foolproof solution when it comes to making assumptions about people we don’t really know anything about. Even the most well-intentioned people are guilty of it, and it often happens in a split second before we realize what our minds are up to.

In a year as bleak as 2020, we craved connection and part of that, for me, was trying to see every new person I met through a screen as a multifaceted, dynamic, three-dimensional human who could teach me something I didn’t know before. It felt good to believe the person on the other side was viewing me the same way—and getting to know my strengths and weaknesses independent of any preconceived notions about height. Being short is part of who I am, but over video, I can look ahead instead of look up.

Updated 9/7/2022