You are reading a letter of recommendation that praises a candidate for a faculty job as being “caring,” “sensitive,” “compassionate,” or a “supportive colleague.” Whom do you picture?
New research suggests that to faculty search committees, such words probably conjure up a woman — and probably a candidate who doesn’t get the job. The scholars who conducted the research believe they may have pinpointed one reason for the “leaky pipeline” that frustrates so many academics, who see that the percentage of women in senior faculty jobs continues to lag the percentage of those in junior positions and that the share in junior positions continues to lag those earning doctorates.
The research is based on a content analysis of 624 letters of recommendation submitted on behalf of 194 applicants for eight junior faculty positions at an unidentified research university. The study found patterns in which different kinds of words were more likely to be used to describe women, while other words were more often used to describe men.
In theory, both sets of words were positive. There’s nothing wrong, one might hope, with being a supportive colleague. But the researchers then took the letters, removed identifying information, and controlled for such factors as number of papers published, number of honors received, and various other objective criteria. When search committee members were asked to compare candidates of comparable objective criteria, those whose letters praised them for “communal” or “emotive” qualities (those associated with women) were ranked lower than others.
The research found no difference between men and women as letter writers — both are more likely to describe women with communal words than they are to describe men that way. And the bias appears to act against male candidates who are praised for traits people associate with women. But a much higher proportion of female candidates — regardless of their overall qualifications — are praised with these words that appear to hurt their chances of being hired for faculty jobs.
I’m a busy bee today–but I’ll just add that I would never use any of the words in that first paragraph when writing letters of recommendation either for colleagues or students for any purpose. I do, however, regularly describe colleagues in the profession–both male and female–as collegial, which focuses more on people’s behavior rather than their subjective essence. WTF with the “caring” and “sharing” Romper Room language? That never belongs in a job letter for a faculty position.
That’s what it looks like to me out here on the frosty range this morning–go read the full article and then tell me: what’s your take? What kind of language has alarmed you in the letters of recommendation you’ve seen? Do you think carefully about the language you use in letters of recommendation?