Recommendation letters could cost women jobs, promotions

A recommendation letter could be the chute in a woman's career ladder, according to ongoing research at Rice University. The comprehensive study shows that qualities mentioned in recommendation letters for women differ sharply from those for men, and those differences may be costing women jobs and promotions in academia and medicine.

Funded by the National Science Foundation, Rice University professors Michelle Hebl and Randi Martin and graduate student Juan Madera, now an assistant professor at the University of Houston, reviewed 624 letters of recommendation for 194 applicants for eight junior faculty positions at a U.S. university. They found that letter writers conformed to traditional gender schemas when describing candidates. Female candidates were described in more communal (social or emotive) terms and male candidates in more agentic (active or assertive) terms.

A further aspect of the study involved rating the strength of the letters, or the likelihood the candidate would be hired based on the letter. The research team removed names and personal pronouns from the letters and asked faculty members to evaluate them. The researchers controlled for such variables as the number of years candidates were in graduate school, the number papers they had published, the number of publications on which they were the lead author, the number of honors they received, the number of years of postdoctoral education, the position applied for and the number of courses taught.

"We found that being communal is not valued in academia," said Martin, the Elma Schneider Professor of Psychology at Rice. "The more communal characteristics mentioned, the lower the evaluation of the candidate."

A follow-up study funded by the National Institutes of Health is under way and includes applicants for faculty and research positions at medical schools. In the new study, enough applicants and positions will be included so that the researchers can use the actual decisions of search committees to determine the influence of letters’ communal and agentic terms in the hiring decisions.

Words in the communal category included adjectives such as affectionate, helpful, kind, sympathetic, nurturing, tactful and agreeable, and behaviors such as helping others, taking direction well and maintaining relationships. Agentic adjectives included words such as confident, aggressive, ambitious, dominant, forceful, independent, daring, outspoken and intellectual, and behaviors such as speaking assertively, influencing others and initiating tasks.

"Communal characteristics mediate the relationship between gender and hiring decisions in academia, which suggests that gender norm stereotypes can influence hireability ratings of applicants," Martin said.

The "pipeline shortage of women" in academia is a well-known and researched phenomenon, but this study is the first of its kind to examine the recommendation letter's role in contributing to the disparity and evaluate it using inferential statistics and objective measures. It's also the first study to show that gender differences in letters actually affect judgments of hireability.

"This research not only has important implications for women in academia but also for women in management and leadership roles," said Hebl, professor of psychology and management at Rice. "A large body of research suggests that communality is not perceived to be congruent with leadership and managerial jobs."

The research team also noted that letter writers included more doubt raisers when recommending women, using phrases such as "She might make an excellent leader" versus what they used for male candidates, "He is already an established leader."

"Subtle gender discrimination continues to be rampant," Hebl said. "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."

Explore further

Study finds male modesty a turn off for women (and men)

More information: Martin, Hebl and Madera's study, "Gender and Letters of Recommendation for Academia: Agentic and Communal Differences," was published last year in the American Psychological Association's Journal of Applied Psychology.
Provided by Rice University
Citation: Recommendation letters could cost women jobs, promotions (2010, November 9) retrieved 21 August 2019 from
This document is subject to copyright. Apart from any fair dealing for the purpose of private study or research, no part may be reproduced without the written permission. The content is provided for information purposes only.

Feedback to editors

User comments

Nov 09, 2010
This comment has been removed by a moderator.

Nov 10, 2010
More than once, when in a hiring position, I've touted potential employees to upper lever management, using sex and race neutral terms, received approval, and then had it reversed when the sex and/or race of the prospective hire became known in the intake interview.

All I've done is reveal hidden bias. I haven't been able to overcome it.

I have no solution.

Nov 10, 2010
@ArtflDgr -- all you're doing here is proving your OWN sexism, not refuting anything in the article. It's not "incompatible" to say that "Subtle gender discrimination continues to be rampant." It means that each individual case seems small (who can really tell WHY that decision was made?) but as a whole community, the effects are clear, and everywhere.

It's totally false that "collectivists can't innovate [or] invent". They're better able to work in teams, which can come up with great ideas. And perhaps equally to the point, not all women ARE "collectivists", but the recommendation letters highlighted stereotypically feminine characteristics in females, and stereotypically male characteristics in males.

Nov 11, 2010
that its legendary that collectivists cant innovate, cant invent to the same degree, are moribund in thinking, and live in fear that what they conclude is empirical but not allowed to think
You suffer from the same archaeic thinking that the "legendary genius" syndrome diagnoses.

No one can finish a project alone, everything requires help. Lose the ego.

Nov 12, 2010
So this is basically academia talking about itself. I think it's fair to ask: who cares?

Nov 12, 2010
@ArtflDgr: Wow. First, what swagmonkey said. Now that you've had a grammar lesson, also try to understand what the article is actually saying. The issue is that for two applicants that are both intelligent and competitive, the male applicant is more likely to have those talents emphasized than the female applicant. You neglecting to understand the article and inserting your own blatant sexism of "well, the women just aren't competitive, duh" illustrates exactly what the article is saying.

@jscroft: Um, I think WOMEN APPLYING FOR JOBS probably care.

Nov 12, 2010
Um, I think WOMEN APPLYING FOR JOBS probably care.

Presumably you mean women who can read for comprehension?

This study speaks EXCLUSIVELY to employment within the academic community. So the topic is not "women," but "women looking for jobs in academia," which is a non-representative sample of the job market at large if ever I've heard of one.

Hmmm, next we're going to be hearing the ridiculous women's studies trope about how victimized women make 71 cents for every dollar a caveman makes, blah blah blah.

When precisely did institutionalized whining become science? Sheesh. Chew on this, darlin':

Nov 13, 2010
@jscroft: And women applying for jobs in academia don't count? Why exactly?

Do not ever call me "darlin'." You are patronizing me. You are one of the many jerks that women have to deal with, and then you don't understand why they are upset.

Nov 13, 2010

Now THAT's what I call reading for comprehension!

You're not quite there yet, though. I'm not patronizing you because you're a chick. I'm patronizing you because you strike me as an overcredentialed, underqualified scold who believes carrying a massive chip on her shoulder is an adequate substitute for having a coherent argument.

See? I understand PRECISELY why you're upset! :)

Now go read that comic strip I linked you to and have a perfectly healthy and immensely clarifying chuckle at your own expense. Darlin'.

Nov 14, 2010
Thanks Becca for reminding us all why stereotypes exist, and to jscroft for illustrating it so exquisitely.
Clearly, this study illuminates academia, it's prejudices, and resultant hiring practices.
Now for "skeptic heretic", I love how you show your very limited experience in nearly every post you make, regardless of subject. I'd also point out that with an apparent ego like yours, it's in poor taste at the very least to call out others.
While true leaders/innovators may require the assistance of a team to actually construct a solution, it is the single innovator who actually solves the problem.
The best that anyone can expect from a group is an average solution.
This has been proven over and over again, and regardless of the current zeitgeist which promotes such socialist/marxist clap trap, I'll put an innovator who has a team to back him up, against any group mind experiment that you can assemble.

Nov 15, 2010
@jscroft, apparently you didn't read this, above: "A large body of research suggests that communality is not perceived to be congruent with leadership and managerial jobs.".

I'm not going to do your work for you in making up a reading list, but there are hundreds of studies concerning the way gender affects hiring, and the ways in which the false binary divides of gender work against both women and men in seeking employment, and the ways in which male-oriented workplaces actually work against their own economic interests by being unable to get past their own gender stereotyping of roles and attributes, thus restricting their own access to talented and trained personnel.

Commenet after you've read the literature. Or even read this short article more carefully.

Nov 15, 2010
@vinaigrettegirl: If you can EXPLICITLY demonstrate how the sentence you quoted above is in IN ANY WAY at odds with any assertion I made, I will give you a crouton.

You will note that I did not address "hundreds of studies." I addressed THIS study, if you want to call it that. And while I was at it, I (implicitly, until now) called into question the very identity of "women's studies" as science, precisely because so many of its published and heavily-reported results rely on statistical parlor tricks that any high-school statistics student ought to be able to unravel with half his brain tied behind his back.

So... by all means feel free to comment after you've read MY comments more carefully. :)

Nov 15, 2010
@jscroft why assume they were "women's studies" positions? The study was funded by the National Science Foundation... I'm guessing that these 8 positions were for science professors.

I think the real problem that this study highlights is that a female candidate has to be better than a male candidate to get the same job. If people are generally inclined to point out the traits less desirable to hiring managers then you have to be way, way ahead of the crowd to get recognized. Alice (of Dilbert) is way, way ahead of the crowd and she doesn't let anyone forget it. Should all women need to be this good to get hired? There are a lot of average men around my office, but all the women engineers know their stuff. It's the only way to get in the door.

Nov 15, 2010
@jscroft why assume they were "women's studies" positions?

I didn't say that. I mentioned women's studies purely to pillory that miserable excuse for a scientific discipline as the source of much of what ails @Becca et al. Gratuitous? Maybe... but INTENSELY satisfying.

I think the real problem that this study highlights is that a female candidate has to be better than a male candidate to get the same job....

That may be true, but we'll never know, because nobody but Government has any interest in funding this kind of research, and Government does not invest for an economic return, but for a political one.

Bottom line: I could write the conclusion of a study like this without doing a lick of research and then defy you to tell the difference between my farce and the "real" thing. It might not ACTUALLY come out of the south end of a northbound mule, but for texture, aroma, and the mess it leaves on my shoes, it's a dead ringer.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more