Do Recommendation Letters Actually Help or Hurt Female Applicants?
Study reveals that recommendation letters indicate doubt about female applicants more than they do for men.
A recent study revealed that letters of recommendation were largely biased against the women that they were supposed the help. Specifically, the study revealed that recommendation letters indicate doubt about female applicants as compared to male ones. The study found that letters about women included more doubt-raising phrases than those about men. While both male and female letter writers were guilty of this largely unconscious bias, these unintentional slips had very real consequences. The study found that the presence of even one doubt-inducing phrase was enough to make a difference in a female applicant’s job search.
While doubt-raising phrases took many different forms, common instances included qualifying phrases and ‘soft’ verbs such as “might,” “could,” and “may.” To see the gender divide illustrated, a recommendation letter for a female might read, “she has the potential to be good,” or “she may not be the best leader but she is competent,” while a letter for a male was far more likely to read “he is good,” and “he is competent.” Analysis of 624 letters of recommendation found that 54% of female letters included at least one doubt-raiser and 13% had two or more. Analysis of male letters showed that 51% had one doubt-raiser and only 7% had two or more.
While this difference may seem minor, it’s important to understand the negative effects that even a single doubt-raiser had on the applicant’s ability to secure a job. According to the study, “Doubt raisers are a minus for everyone, but letter writers assign that minus more often to women than to men. If search committees ignored letters of recommendation, that asymmetry would not matter. But letters of recommendation are commonly used as selection tools in academia.” Ultimately, the data has “important implications for women in academia, particularly because women face biases early in the selection process.”
The study authors explained that they hoped their findings would encourage letter writers to be more aware of the wording they used and hoped that advisors and mentors would be more aware of how recommendation letters indicate doubt about female applicants more than men.
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