Patriarchal equilibrium: we're doin' it rite!

Check out this story from Inside Higher Ed about the effects of gendered language in letters of recommendation submitted for applicants to faculty positions:

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?

0 thoughts on “Patriarchal equilibrium: we're doin' it rite!

  1. GayProf–have you seen this kind of language in job apps. in your department? I have occasionally–but I haven’t noticed that it affected our evaluation of the candidates (in discussions on search committees or in department meetings.)

    This article will make me point out this language to my colleagues and remind them that we need to ignore this as a poor choice by the writer of the recommendation and be sure that we’re giving the candidate a fair shake.


  2. As if I didn’t have enough to stress about as a job candidate, right? Since I’m not privy to what the letters ACTUALLY say, I’ll never know. I’d like to think the people writing my letters would be better than that, but at this point, it’s all about holding on to any and all hopes you have as a job applicant! 🙂

    Too bad this didn’t come out last spring so I could have sent it on to all my recommenders.


  3. I wonder too if all the time spent describing the personal attributes of the applicant led these letter writers less time to discuss their actual accomplishments, or the significance of their work. This also could have an impact on the committee, making those candidates seem less competitive in spite of what is on their cv.


  4. Tanya–it’s never too late for people to learn. You might forward a link to this article to your referees. You might take comfort in their responses–then again, you might not. But it might guide their thinking in writing letters for you next year, if necessary. (IOW, most of us have more than one crack at the job market before we get the job we want.)

    ej, I think that could be a big part of it. Perhaps letter writers focus more on attractive attributes in women, and they focus on men’s work?

    Interestingly, the responses over at IHE so far to the article are less primitive than they usually are whenever IHE publishes an article on sex discrimination in academic employment. One commenter laments that academics are screening out those who are “caring” and “sharing,” but seriously: doesn’t everyone have a mommy or daddy already? How is that part of our everyday job descriptions?


  5. Of course, in the real world, letters of application are attached to real candidates’ names, which often reveal the sex of the candidate anyway. The pernicious effect of such language in letters is absolutely an interesting (if depressing) conclusion, but it also seems crucial to attempt to measure whether it has a similar effect when the names of the candidates are known, or whether other effects then take precedence.

    “Caring” and “Sharing” and the rest do potentially have a place in rec. letters, as they might relate to teaching: but to the degree that teaching is gendered feminine and research is gendered masculine, the gendering effect of such words is still potentially troubling.


  6. Like Historiann, I use “collegial” a lot, or “good departmental citizen.” I have used “caring” in the context of a specific job, when it was clear that teaching was the top priority and the school really did want someone who would care about the students. And the student got the job.

    In general, I think adjectives in letters of recommendation are the easy way out. “Brilliant” is less useful than “[this particular aspect of student’s dissertation] has revolutionized the way we think about [topic],” and “caring” is less useful than “devotes a great deal of time to working closely with students, and develops a good rapport with them.”


  7. I’ve used “communitarian” (not as a noun, but as a modifier), intending it to connote something considerably more skills- and orientation-based, and uncommon, and critical, than either the almost ubiquitous “collegial,” and the more essentializing “communal” (which, good god, would make me think the candidate would propose drawing our socks from a common crib each morning, as up there at Morninglow Farm…). I think the results have been about average, which is to say, the candidates got the objective in question about as often as they did not. But maybe I should content-analyze my own files.

    What language has “alarmed” me/made me cringe, in letters of recommendation I’ve read? ALL OF IT!!! It’s a dreadful genre piece, second only in its awfulness to cover letters themselves, including the ones that I write. I go straight for the c.v. We’re historians, after all, or some of us are. The more or less linear fragmentedness of that class of document should, I would think, chemically snap us into the frame of analysis that will reveal who looks interesting and who not. Concededly, the candidates who most need personal testimony are often the most junior with the least amount of opportunity to have put points on the board. And this has to be allowed for somehow. But the highest and best use of a letter of rec. should be to hopefully find on it a phone number to CALL the author to find out what is really the story. And yes, I mean even at the relatively early screening stages.


  8. I like Ruth’s point about the relative power of adjectives (not much) compared to detailed descriptions of the candidates’ work. I agree that adjectives are cheap and easily thrown around, and in the end not all that helpful when you’re on a search committee screening applications.

    And I agree with Indyanna: not only are letters of recommendation a boring genre, they’re as predictable as a bad mystery or sci-fi. Everyone has their story about a leader in their field who regularly claims that “X is one of the top two students I’ve ever worked with,” even when several of hir students are applying for the same job, all with the same sentence at the top of the letter. Back to Ruth’s point: effective letters help the search committee understand the significance of the candidate’s work.

    (I’m actually the fan of the application letter, because I like to see if candidates can write a convincing narrative explanation of their careers thus far. Good letters should walk the reader through the candidate’s CV and help interpret it.)


  9. I have used some of the words in the first paragraph when recommending students, male and female, to work with K-12 students or special needs individuals. There is a place for that kind of language when you’re attempting to determine who’s going to have the skills (that also include fortitude and firmness) to manage that kind of work.

    I have to say that I rarely see such words showing up in letters of reference or recommendation. I have seen some interesting word choice and concepts of recommendation, mind you. Some writers seem to be tone-deaf to how their words come across!


  10. I’ve read a fuckejillion recommendation letters for faculty candidates, and I’ve never noticed use of adjectives like that. Could there be differences across disciplines? What were the disciplines of the searches they analyzed?


  11. Oddly, at SLAC, those things are considered very important! Because of our very real emphasis on teaching and our student population (handholding is not only expected, but we sort of emphasize that in our promotional material, along with low student-faculty ratios), most of our search committees tend to bin the files where the recommendations use words like ‘scholarly,’ ‘driven,’ etc. And often, now that I think about it, those things take a lot of men out of the running. We WANT people who are serious scholars, but we also want people who understand the realities of a 4-3 load and are willing to put their students’ needs first. If a letter makes it look like the person will be a bad fit due to frustrated ambitions or will not stick around because they see us as a stepping-stone, that can count against them.

    Still, I’d rather see more neutral language across the board!


  12. The scholarly article this is based on is by Juan M. Madera, Michelle R. Hebl, and Randi C. Martin, “Gender and Letters of Recommendation in Academia: Agentuc and Communal Differences,” Journal of Applied Psychology 94:6 (2009), 1591-99. It is based on 624 letters of application for 194 applicants for 8 different faculty positions in a Psychology department at an R-1 institution in the U.S. South from 1998-2006.

    Interestingly, the IHE article reports that ” The National Institutes of Health is now supporting a follow-up study looking at letters of recommendation for medical faculty positions.” I’m sure there are interesting disciplinary differences–but I wonder if their research in the article above will hold steady in spite of some differences.


  13. [Famous Economist] wrote a beauty of a horrible awful sexist letter for someone the other year. It praised her for not actually being ditzy even though that was the first impression she gave (“just like [another famous young woman economist who he named, and who I have NEVER thought of as coming off as anything other than professional]”). Thing is, he was actually trying to help her get a job.


  14. No libelous accusations, please!

    I have no idea who’s commenting here and whether or not what they say is true, so I’m not comfortable leaving the proper name in the comment above. Anonymous Economist’s comment gives a flava of the “helpful” sexism out there without naming names.

    The crummiest letter of recommendation I’ve ever seen was from a historian who–seriously–wrote 2 paragraphs about HIMSELF before getting around to writing the letter on behalf of his student. He went on and on about how “this request for a letter of recommendation comes at a very stressful time, because I’m off to [foreign country] to be the [fancypants named chair of fancypants university] and I’m having to do this amidst a pile of boxes and crates that we’re shipping abroad. . . ” No sexist language that I can recall, but that would just have been gilding the lily, clearly.


  15. The one that annoyed me the most recently was the person who referred to the candidate as “Mrs. Candidate” throughout. I often do remind people that the letters often say as much or more about the letter writer than the candidate. . .


  16. Eeeeeeeew.

    Married women and men of my generation coming out of grad school in the mid-1990s used to have lengthy conversations about whether or not to wear their wedding ring to job interviews. Do people still worry about that these days? It was conventional wisdom at the time that marriage may be held against candidates, esp. if female.


  17. The crummiest letter of recommendation I’ve ever seen was from a historian who–seriously–wrote 2 paragraphs about HIMSELF before getting around to writing the letter on behalf of his student.

    HAHAHAHAHAH! Now that I *have* seen!


  18. I was on a search committee last year for the first time and so this study doesn’t surprise me in the slightest. I noticed at the time the gendered language deployed in some of the letters. I’d like to think that my reaction to those terms reflected on the letter writer rather than the candidate. But some of the terms mentioned in the article–which I’ve also seen in letters of recommendation–almost sound like they are touting the candidate as a good therapist, like when I find out that a dear loved one has an inoperable brain tumor, I can go to this person and benefit from their “sympathy” and “compassion.” Strange.


  19. I second Maggie’s recommendation on the Color of Glass piece — it shows isn’t just the caring language crap, it’s an implicitly gendered emphasis on teaching and research (women are great teachers, men are great scholars; women have potential, men are rising stars). I am now extra careful in all my letters to avoid even inadvertently falling into those kinds of stereotypes.

    My fave rec letter? There are so many to choose from, but probably the one that talked about a candidate as “the best Black student I have ever taught.” Uh, thanks?


  20. Thirds on Maggie’s link. Great article.

    I’ve been asked for recommendations from students who weren’t doing all that well in my classes, a fact that always astonishes me. I have yet to turn one down, but I wonder how far this will go. In writing the letters, I have always tended to the specific, and this goes especially for those. Why am I writing to recommend a student who is expected to get a grade of no more than C in my class? If I can’t answer that question, I won’t agree to recommend.

    I’ve always felt that the more specific the better, and it’s good to see that confirmed here. But even better would be a study showing what kind of recommendations work. But then, Eew.


  21. “Exploring the Color of Glass: Letters of recommendation for female and male medical faculty”

    Very interesting article. One important methodological aspect is that it is limited to applicants who actually secured the faculty positions. It seems likely that the differences by gender of the applicant would be magnified if the analysis included applicants who didn’t get the position.


  22. “…whether or not to wear their wedding ring to job interviews. Do people still worry about that these days?”

    In conversations I’ve had with people going on the market around now, yes, women still worry about it (and questions about their marital and procreative status). The general consensus based on my friends is that many women fear there’s no right answer/marital status/parenthood status, and men don’t worry about it (as there’s no wrong answer).


  23. I actually think marriage/children (as tokens of heterosexuality and imagined sexual stability) can be advantages for men on the job market. As you suggest, there’s no down side for straight men to talk about their wives and kids. In fact it can be reassuring to some search committees in that it’s also a signal that the candidate isn’t gay and/or likely to prey on the students for companionship.

    Few search committees see wives of male candidates as potential barriers to the candidates’ ability or willingness to relocate. It’s not the same for women candidates partnered with/married to men.


  24. Most of the women I know on the job market right now take off their wedding bands. And, they are all reading these articles right now.

    I was asked about my marital status on every single job interview I went on. Except for the job I have, which was also the only TT job offer I got. Of course, I was seven months pregnant.


  25. When I was on the market several years ago, women were still really concerned about whether to “appear” married or not. But what I’ve found being on the other side now is how many places worry about hiring a single female because they argue she’ll be miserable and will just leave anyway. And one of my single colleagues has a department conspiring to “marry her off”. Honestly, we just can’t win.


  26. I agree that men can benefit from being married with kids (and most of the male friends with whom I’ve talked about this are married with kids). It didn’t occur to most of them to *not* talk about their wives/kids or to be concerned about this. Single men still are o.k. for some of the same reasons — when they do get married (and in most cases I think that would be the assumption), they’re unlikely to relocate because of it. And yeah, whatever women’s relationship/family status is it’s wrong, to at least some departments/people.


  27. Great post and fantastic link, Maggie. I’m sending that link to my local academic senate which just had a vote about which I shall vituperate below.

    Wedding rings: married with kids is an advantage for men although singlehood isn’t a disadvantage. When I was younger than I am now it was definitely a disadvantage for women to be married; now it varies. I was on a search committee which actually debated between two different, though both well qualified, married women finalists in these terms:

    CANDIDATE A. Married to a tenured, but not old professor in a technical discipline. Her: 30, new PhD, no kids. Men on committee wondering: won’t they want to have kids and won’t they decide it’s better for them to live where he is, since he’s tenured? What they said, and I kid you not: “Neither she nor her husband are from cultures where it is common not to have children. Therefore, they are even more likely to want children and to make this a priority now, than they would if they were white. Given that this must be a priority for them, we can safely assume that her husband will not LET her seriously consider a move here.” OF COURSE they didn’t consider that said fancy-vita husband might give up his job at a more prestigious place for where we were, or that our place might be delighted to get his fancy-vita self in addition to her untenured, but still fancy-vita self, or even think of asking that question, which they would have done had the genders been reversed.

    CANDIDATE B. Married to a nonacademic with career in airlines. Her: 40, new PhD, child already started college far away from home. Men on committee saying: let’s hire her, her husband can fly out of here and the child can visit and everything will be fine. What at least one was thinking, as soon became manifest: a woman in that situation will be good affair material. What she did: see lay of land and leave.

    Point of anecdotes: note how women get treated as the sex class.

    OT: what I came on here to look for a post where this will be vaguely relevant: my vituperation du jour, from academic senate. What: committee on status of women did study of salaries, found women’s salaries wanting, proposed resolution to request remedy. Note: various men chairing and also on committee. Result: resolution passed very narrowly, with heavy opposition and many women in opposition. Excuse given for voting against: it would cost money, and budgets are tight. My comment post meeting: senate isn’t budget committee, and this is a recommendation / request on which the proposal was to require remedy over a period of years; if you support in principle then it is not “irresponsible” to vote yes; the idea that the resolution would have no teeth in a low budget year is a red herring. Response from abstaining men: I am a radical. Me: I’m a “union man”! Women voting against are voting against their own best interests, and male Marxists abstaining due to scruples about this year’s finances are being disingenuous! Response: I am rigorous. Me: one would hope so. You have to be rigorous in matters of science and business, right?

    Apparently not, though, because women are soft, and we should all identify up anyway.

    End of rant.


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