Gender Bias in Letters of Recommendation

September 22, 2014

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.


Letters of Recommendation – Our Recommendations for Getting Them

August 7, 2013

References are an extremely important part of any application.  However, many people struggle with knowing what is the best way, and whom do you ask, for great letters of recommendation.

Generally speaking, you should aim to get at least three letters of recommendation. Although the common thread throughout these should be you, each letter should be unique, helping elucidate a different aspect of your candidacy—whether that is your education, technical and research skills, leadership abilities or beyond.

Whom to ask?
Ask someone who knows you very well! Although this might sound obvious, many individuals are lured by the appeal of having a well-known scientist write a recommendation.  It is much better to ask someone who is exceptionally familiar with your work, and who can clearly speak to your strengths.

Your recommenders will vary depending on your specific career plans and focus, but may include:

  • Dissertation/academic advisers
  • Supervisors if you are a postdoc
  • Someone who can speak to your teaching abilities and/or your experience in industry or non-bench activities
  • If you are looking for a letter for medical school or graduate school:
    — Summer research experience mentor
    — Faculty member who taught a hard science course

When to ask?
Ask early! A surefire way to receive a lukewarm, or worse—a negative, letter of recommendation is to not give enough advanced notice to your recommender. Four to six weeks of advance notice is standard; however, as an added courtesy, you could ask earlier and see what would be a feasible timeline for your recommender. It is always better to ask in advance and then as the deadline approaches, you can send friendly reminders of the impending due date. Periodic reminders will not be resented and will reflect favorably on your organizational skills.

You can also ask for letters of recommendation as you are wrapping up an experience.  If you are graduating, finishing an internship or completing your postdoc, it is a good idea to ask for a recommendation now. Even if these letters aren’t immediately used, it can be helpful to ask while your work is still fresh in their minds. If needed and/or appropriate, you can always ask for updates at a later time.

How to ask?
Ask personally! It is to your advantage to ask face-to-face. By having an in-person meeting, you can explain your career plans and have a thoughtful conversation about what could give you a competitive edge during the application process. This is also your opportunity to candidly ask if they are willing to write a positive letter for you and to ensure that they don’t have any reservations about your candidacy. In the moment, this can be a difficult conversation to have; however, in the long run, this is a necessary starting point to ensure your work is getting the best endorsement possible.