Gender Bias in Letters of Recommendation

The time has arrived – you are in search of a new position! Besides getting your CV/resume in shape, working on those cover letters, and looking at position postings, you are also sending out requests for letters of recommendation. Hold that thought though – especially if you are a woman!

Research has uncovered “unintended gender bias in letters of recommendation.” A study by Trix and Psenka (2003) examined 300 letters of recommendation for medical faculty positions and determined that recommenders unconsciously described candidates in stereotypically gendered ways:

  • Men were described as “successful” and “accomplished” and letters for male applicants contained more repetitions of superlatives such as “outstanding” or “exceptional.”
  • Women were described as “nurturing” and “compassionate” and letters for female applicants often include doubt raisers, statements like: “It appears that her health and personal life are stable.”

Letters for female applicants were shorter and lacked basic features like a description of the writer’s relationship with the applicant, comments on the applicant’s academic traits and achievements, and/or evaluative comments. Letters for males were more aligned with critical job requirements and used stronger language like “excellent research record” and “ability”. The language used was full of nuanced and hidden biases resulting in diminished support for female applicants. Even the descriptions of positive qualities portrayed men in their role as researchers and professionals, while women were portrayed as teachers. Adjectives used in female letters as a constructive description (e.g. ‘hardworking’, ‘conscientious’, ‘dependable’, ‘meticulous’, ‘thorough’, ‘diligent’, ‘dedicated’, and ‘careful’) often ended up having the reverse effect. In many ways it denoted a sentiment that she is hardworking because she has to compensate for lack of ability.

Letters of recommendation are critical to your career advancement. So, based on this report, it might not be a bad idea to give your advisor or mentor an overview of this research and follow up with a proposed checklist of your own. Here are some guidelines to consider:

  1. Use titles and surnames for both women and men.
  2. Discuss applicants only in terms of the job requirements (provide a detailed list to your advisor in advance).
  3. Limit discussions of personality and interpersonal skills to avoid hidden gender bias!
  4. Avoid mentioning stereotypically female traits or professions if they are not relevant to the job.

Generally, advisors aren’t intentionally biased when writing letters and you can’t fully control what is written; what you can control is how well you prepare your letter writer. Provide your advisor with a list of the job requirements and a list of the skills and achievements you want him/her to include in the letter. Another tool you both can use is an online gender bias calculator. You can copy and paste your recommendation and see a listing of all the male or female-associated words that are listed in your letter. Talk to your advisor about these possible pitfalls in letters of recommendation (show them the data!) and prime him/her to be more conscientious while writing yours.

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2 Responses to Gender Bias in Letters of Recommendation

  1. I thoroughly enjoyed this post

  2. […] When I apply for a position, I am more likely to be described with superlatives like “outstanding” and less likely to be described by &ld… […]

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