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Shortchanging the short

This past July, Bobby Ackles, the President and CEO of the BC Lions football team, died suddenly of a heart attack at the age of 69.

By all accounts, Ackles was greatly liked and respected. He had started out his employment with the Lions as a water boy in 1953 and enjoyed successful careers as a football executive both in the Canadian Football League and the American National Football League. Unfortunately, many of the comments lauding him seemed to stress his having overcome his height of less than 5 foot 4:

"To be a man so small in stature and accomplish what he did in our league and in the National Football League is incredible" – Saskatchewan Roughriders general manager Eric Tillman

"While Ackles wasn't very tall, the shoes he left under the desk are awfully big." – Kent Gilchrist, The Province

"Small in stature, but a giant in life." – Winnipeg Free Press

"The president and CEO of the BC Lions was a great little football man who had been around the game all his life." – Mike Beamish, Vancouver Sun

Similarly, sportscaster Brian Williams and an executive with the Lions drew attention to the fact that Ackles reached great heights notwithstanding his diminutive nature. Without meaning to, these commentators are saying that being short is a shortcoming that must be transcended.

Have these people never heard of the likes of Woody Allen, Ludwig van Beethoven, Mel Brooks, Truman Capote, Charlie Chaplin, Eddie Fisher, Michael J. Fox, Francis of Assisi, Buckminster Fuller, Yuri Gagarin, Mahatma Gandhi, Harry Houdini, Immanuel Kant, John Keats, René Lévesque, Aristotle Onassis, Pablo Picasso, Alexander Pope, Martin Scorsese, Paul Simon, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Voltaire and Paul Williams – none who exceeded 5 foot 5?

Notice that I excluded Charles Manson, the Marquis de Sade, Baby Face Nelson, Mahmoud Ahmedinijad and Josef Stalin from the above list.

It is not the stature of a person that presents the problem, rather it is the prejudice directed to the "vertically-challenged" that must be addressed.

We might say that good things come in small packages, but as a society we're obsessed with height and perhaps even hard-wired to prefer people who are tall. Economists have long been aware that short men earn less than taller men. The average height of a Fortune 500 CEO is around 6 feet (roughly 3 inches taller than the male average). Taller people earn approximately $1000 per inch more a year than short ones. This is comparable to the earning discrepancies that exist on the basis of gender and race.

Discrimination expert Dr. Mahzarin Banaji, a psychology research leader at Harvard, uses his Implicit Association Test (ITA) to demonstrate that "the vast majority of us harbour deeply rooted negative feelings about shorter men." The IAT is a highly respected tool designed to quantify subconscious prejudices. In a comprehensive study, Dr. Banaji discovered that "height bias is in your face... It's as strong as other very important biases such as race bias or gender bias." His results were consistent regardless of gender, age, or ethnicity.

In a 1995 article in The Economist, author Jonathan Rauch stated that "height hierarchies are established early, and persist for a long time. Tall boys are deferred to and seen as mature, short ones ridiculed and seen as childlike. Tall men are seen as natural 'leaders' – short ones are called 'pushy'... The men who suffer are those who are noticeably short: say, 5'5" and below. In a man's world, they do not impress. Indeed, the connection between height and status is embedded in the very language. Respected men have 'stature' and are 'looked up to,' quite literally, as it turns out."

That Bob Ackles could start off as a lowly water boy and climb to the top executive position in a large organization is truly impressive, inspiring and worth mentioning – the fact that some people stress he did so as a short man, while perhaps not being the height of prejudice, is the prejudice of height.



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