Help That Hurts Women

By  Colleen Flaherty

Study finds recommendation letters for academic jobs signal doubt about female applicants more than they do for men, with real, negative effects on their job chances.  

Some scholars have questioned academe’s reliance on letters of recommendation, saying they’re onerous for the professors writing them or speak more about connections to “big-name” scholars than substance, or both.

A recent study explores another concern about letters of recommendation: whether they’re biased against the women they’re supposed to help. The short answer is yes.
The longer answer -- and the study’s obvious takeaway for recommendation-letter writers and readers -- is that letters about women include more doubt-raising phrases than those about men, and that even one such phrase can make a difference in a job search.

"Doubt raisers,” as the study calls them, come in different forms. But all suggest less than complete confidence in the letter seeker. First, there are “hedges,” as in, “She might be good.” Then there are “negatives,” such as, “She’s not great,” along with “faint praises,” such as, “She’ll do OK.” Last, irrelevant information also raises red flags for a reader.
Both male and female letter writers are guilty of this largely unconscious bias, the new paper says. However unintended, the consequences are real. Faculty members reading the letters included in the study noticed the presence of even one doubt raiser and evaluated subjects of the letters more negatively.

These results build on other research about gendered language in recommendation letters, including a 2016 study that found letter writers use language that portrays female academic job applicants as less dynamic and excellent than their male counterparts. To read more, visit...