Study Finds Recommendation Letters Hurt Rather Than Help Women

November 10, 2010

Business woman waiting in office loungeWhile 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,", November 9, 2010, David Ruth

"Study: Recommendation letters can hinder women,", November 10, 2010, Daniel de Vise

"Too Nice to Land a Job,", November 10, 2010, Scott Jaschik

Career and Education News

Our News Writers and Editors

CityTownInfo Writers and Editors


Follow Us on Facebook
Follow Us on Twitter
Follow Us on Youtube

Career and College Resources on CityTownInfo

Real-World Career Reports

Career Stories from workers: daily activities, job tips, best/worst job aspects, training, etc.
Daily Career & Education News from our staff. We're an approved Google News provider!

Career References and Original Articles

Resource Center. A starting point for all CityTownInfo career and college resources.
Career Overviews of hundreds of careers: descriptions, salaries, forecasts, schools, more.
Best Careers Not Requiring Degrees: Good pay, job growth, low need for degrees.
Helpful Articles, many in "how-to" format; e.g., "How to Become a Chef".
Infographics covering employment and educational trends.

College Directories and Lists

These lists link to thousands of detailed school profiles.

Colleges by State. Nearly every college and trade school in the country.
Colleges Listed Alphabetically. About 7,000 colleges & trade schools, including online schools.
Colleges by Major City. Browse cities with multiple college options.
Online Colleges. Colleges with online degree programs.
Graduate Schools by State. Colleges offering graduate degree programs.
Graduate Schools by Major City. Find cities with multiple graduate school options.