Recommendation letters and discrimination

A study conducted by researchers at Rice University examined reference letters written for academics in support of job applications or job promotions. The study examined whether such letters reflected gender stereotypes, and if so, what the impact might be on job and promotion prospects. Unsurprisingly, they discovered that letter writers did employ gender schemas, and these were likely to have a negative impact on women’s careers. The researchers reviewed 624 letters of recommendation, written for 194 people who applied for junior positions at a US university. Letters of recommendation written for women tended to describe them in more ‘communal’ (social, emotive) terms, using words such as ‘affectionate’, ‘helpful’, ‘caring’, ‘sympathetic’ and ‘tactful’. Men were described in ‘agentic’ (assertive, active) terms, such as ‘confident’, ‘forceful’, ‘independent’, and ‘daring’. The researchers then anonymised all the letters, controlled for awards, publications, experience, and so on, and gave the letters to faculty to evaluate. The letters that described the applicant in more ‘communal’ terms consistently received more negative evaluations. In addition, letter writers tended to be more hesitant about women’s qualities – e.g., letter writers for women were more likely to say things like ‘I think she will probably make a good leader’, whilst letter writers for men tended to say things such as ‘He is an established leader’. If this phenomenon is widespread, and there is reason to suppose it is, then it amounts to a form of implicit discrimination – whilst there is no suggestion that letter writers or readers are consciously employing gender schemas/rating women more negatively, the net result is to disadvantage women applicants. A second study is planned, which will examine the same issues with respect to medical jobs. You can read a write-up of the study here.