November 10, 2010
While letters of recommendation are typically used to help people get jobs, researchers from Rice University found that they may actually hurt candidates, especially if those candidates are women.
According to Inside Higher Ed, Rice professors Michelle Hebl and Randi Martin and graduate student Juan Madera, now assistant professor at the University of Houston, analyzed 624 letters of recommendation for 194 applicants for eight faculty positions at an unidentified U.S. university. The letters of recommendation for both women and men used positive words; however, it was found that letter writers used traditional gender attributes to describe applicants. For instance, communal terms, such as "nurturing", "kind" and "agreeable" were used to describe women, while agentic words, such as "assertive", "confident" and "ambitious" were used for men. There was no difference, however, between women and men writers--both used more communal words when describing women than they did for men.
In order to further analyze the effects of using such terms, faculty members were asked to rate the strength of the letters or the likelihood of the candidate getting hired based on the letter. As a Rice University press release reported, researchers made the letters anonymous by removing names and pronouns and controlled for variables such as the number of papers published, number of honors received, years of graduate and postdoctoral education and other objective criteria. The bottom line: "We found that being communal is not valued in academia," said Martin. "The more communal characteristics mentioned, the lower the evaluation of the candidate."
Hebl told Inside Higher Ed, "When you use communal terminology, it is linking people to a feminine type, and they are not seen as credible and they don't get hired." She added that using communal words hurts both women and men, but because they are used more often to describe women, women are more affected.
Interestingly, The Washington Post noted that researchers also found that recommendation letters for women included dubious phrases such as, "She might make an excellent leader". Letters for men were usually more confident: "He is already an established leader."
As Inside Higher Ed pointed out, women are in a tough spot because hiring committees seem to perceive women who are described as nice and supportive as being pushovers. Hebl pointed out that even in fields such as nursing, where communal attributes are necessary for the job, agentic qualities that are typically associated with men are valued more. However, Hebl cautioned women against being too assertive as that, too, can been seen as negative.
According to the press release, this research has implications for women in management and leadership. "Subtle gender discrimination continues to be rampant," said Hebl. "And it's important to acknowledge this because you cannot remediate discrimination until you are first aware of it. Our and other research shows that even small differences--and in our study, the seemingly innocuous choice of words--can act to create disparity over time and experiences."
Compiled by Heidi M. Agustin
"Recommendation letters may be costing women jobs, promotions," rice.edu, November 9, 2010, David Ruth
"Study: Recommendation letters can hinder women," washingtonpost.com, November 10, 2010, Daniel de Vise
"Too Nice to Land a Job," insidehighered.com, November 10, 2010, Scott Jaschik