Letters of recommendation: A department affair?

A recently posted query from a reader worried me. The query was about how to improve letters of recommendation, but since I was assuming the writer was a women, I worried that the problem originated in some sort of gender-related bias.

Whether or not it did, recent research lends weight to the idea that letters of reference do show a kind of gender influence that is undesirable. I’ll mention details of it below, but the question now is, what to do about it?

Perhaps it is a bit late in the year to do much now, but we probably do not have the means to accomplish a lot. So let’s suppose we do some more research and solidy identify some problem areas (e.g., men are seen more as active agents, their praise words are higher and more definite, etc), is this the sort of thing that can be effectively addressed in a department meeting? Are we going to find that there are people sitting there unmoved because they think that men just are more motivated, have more initiative and are generally brighter?

Another possibility would be to get some departments to agree to open their dossier files for a research project, and to convince some members of a social science department that analyzing them would make an interesting project. There are two women in philosophy who have been or are now PIs on NSF Advance grants, and they might help identify universities where this has some likelihood of succeeding.

Another thing would be for this blog to do a useful page on how professors can improve their letters for students, with a list of the common problems seen. (Actually, if we haven’t done it already, I’ll be happy to do that.)

Any more ideas?

One recent bit of relevant researchThe paper is online; here is the abstract:

Gender and Letters of Recommendation for Academia: Agentic and Communal Differences

In 2 studies that draw from the social role theory of sex differences (A. H. Eagly, W. Wood, & A. B. Diekman, 2000), the authors investigated differences in agentic and communal characteristics in letters of recommendation for men and women for academic positions and whether such differences influenced selection decisions in academia. The results supported the hypotheses, indicating (a) that women were described as more communal and less agentic than men (Study 1) and (b) that communal characteristics ave a negative relationship with hiring decisions in academia that are based on letters of recommendation (Study 2). Such results are particularly important because letters of recommendation continue to be heavily weighted and commonly used selection tools (R. D. Arvey & T. E. Campion, 1982; R. M.Guion, 1998), particularly in academia (E. P. Sheehan, T. M. McDevitt, & H. C. Ross, 1998).


Juan M. Madera, University of Houston

Michelle R. Hebl and Randi C. Martin, Rice University


I just discovered a post by Monkey which covers the research in the article, and she links to some of the background info from Rice University.