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Is obesity contagious?

Is obesity contagious?
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First Published: Fri, Apr 02 2010. 10 50 PM IST

Updated: Fri, Apr 02 2010. 10 50 PM IST
Happy House: Spousal Weight and Individual Well-being By Andrew E. Clark and Fabrice Etile; Paris School of Economics
In 2003, the World Bank said that obesity had reached epidemic proportions. But if it is an epidemic, is it contagious, like other epidemics? There is apparently a raging debate on this topic. Clark and Etile investigate the effect that being obese has on one’s spouse. They consider three waves of German Socio Economic Panel data on well-being and attempt to correlate that with the Body Mass Index (weight in kilograms divided by height in metres squared) of one’s spouse. In plain English, does the fact that your spouse is fat make you unhappy?
Here are the results: Women’s well-being falls with their partner’s body mass index, provided they are not overweight themselves. But when they are overweight, they feel better when their partner, too, is overweight and when they are obese, they feel better when their partner is obese. In short, say the researchers, for women the best situation is when they have the same weight status as their partner. For men, however, the situation is different. Like the women, thin men are most satisfied when their partner is thin, too. But overweight men also want their partners to be not overweight. Only obese men apparently prefer their partners, too, to be obese. The authors also find that “partner’s weight reduces the disutility of own weight when the individual is overweight, consistent with social contagion”. In other words, if you are overweight and your spouse is too, you feel less bad about it.
Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint
But one shouldn’t jump to the conclusion that as your spouse gets heavier your incentive to lose weight is reduced. Instead, the authors say that the so-called contagion in weight is actually the result of people liking members of the other sex with the same body shape as themselves. Their full conclusion is worth reproducing: “Individuals are happy to be in a couple with someone who has the same body shape as them, but within a marriage the fact that their partner puts on a few pounds does not affect their own preferred body shape. In longer lasting marriages, we even identify a negative cross-partial effect: The heavier I am, the less satisfied I am that my partner gain weight.”
To sum up, if your spouse is overweight, you need not get too worried about catching the disease.
Why do Women leave Science and Engineering? By Jennifer Hunt; NBER working paper
Women are more likely to give up jobs in science and engineering, according to several studies in the US. Is this because they wish to devote more time to their families? Is it because of the traditional male domination of these bastions? Or is it because women are dissatisfied with working conditions in these fields? Jennifer Hunt attempts to answer these questions in this paper.
Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint
She finds that the exit rate for women compared to men is indeed higher from science and engineering than from other fields, but most of these “excess exits” are concentrated in engineering rather than in science. But the women leaving engineering go to work in other fields, rather than stay at home to take care of children. The author finds that family-related constraints are not a factor.
What then is the reason? Hunt finds that “the most important driver of excess female exits from engineering is dissatisfaction over pay and promotion opportunities, a factor explaining about 60% of the differential gender gap in exit rates”. Why are women so cut up about the lack of pay and promotion opportunities? The author says it’s “a lack of mentoring and networks, or discrimination by managers and co-workers (that) are the more promising of the existing explanations for excess female exits”. In other words, it’s gender bias that’s working against them, rather than the sexist justification that women want to place their families before their careers.
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First Published: Fri, Apr 02 2010. 10 50 PM IST