Minimize Unconscious Bias in Recommendation Letters

by Kelle on December 7, 2011

LetterWriting‘Tis the season for recommendation letter writing and a friendly reminder of an important issue that letter writers, readers, and requestors should all be aware of. (Also see last year’s Recommendation Letter Writing Round Up.) While writing letters is a task that is generally taken with great care for all mentees, there are some things that should be kept in mind when writing letters for women. In order to minimize the unconscious bias of the person evaluating applicant, letter writers should be very cautious of gendering their letters. It has been shown that:

…qualities mentioned in recommendation letters for women differ sharply from those for men, and those differences may be costing women jobs and promotions in academia and medicine. Female candidates were described in more communal (social or emotive) terms and male candidates in more agentic (active or assertive) terms.


Words in the communal category [that are gendered and should be avoided, especially for women] included adjectives such as affectionate, helpful, kind, sympathetic, nurturing, tactful and agreeable, and behaviors such as helping others, taking direction well and maintaining relationships.


Agentic adjectives [which should be used for everybody] included words such as confident, aggressive, ambitious, dominant, forceful, independent, daring, outspoken and intellectual, and behaviors such as speaking assertively, influencing others and initiating tasks.


Also checkout FSP’s recent post in Scientopia about whether or not to say anything negative at all, other “Rules,” and a helpful discussion in the comments. I also find inspiration from this compilation of Useful Phrases.

Letter requesters, please share this post with your writers regardless of your or their gender—they’ll appreciate the help and it will help raise the community’s awareness of the ways we can minimize the pesky gender biases that are still negatively impacting our field.

{ 20 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Eilat December 7, 2011 at 9:59 pm

What about “innovative” “original” “creative”? Traits which I think are important for success in research and what kind of work one can expect from a candidate. Are those communal or agentic?

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2 Kelle December 9, 2011 at 6:49 pm

Just reading the words and seeing what face I associate with those words, I would say “innovative” is strong while “original” and “creative” are not so good. I also feel like those words might imply that the student didn’t have the skills to do it the traditional way so they had to resort to creativity. I think “thinking outside the box” might be a good phrase to convey what you’re getting at.

3 chris December 7, 2011 at 11:18 pm

The Scientopia article gives some valuable tips on how committees debate the meaning (or lack thereof) of letters, which is definitely useful. However, regardless of your gender, if someone can ever describe you as affectionate, kind, or nurturing from their experience with you in research, then either A) You probably didn’t really work with them and they only know your personal qualities as opposed to your researcher qualities, or B) You are a bad scientist. Either way, you shouldn’t be asking that person to write your letter. If you worked with someone closely on any project (including being a student in their class), no matter your gender, they should always be able to describe you as aggressive, independent, outspoken, etc. Otherwise you’re doing it wrong, and you should probably look at yourself pretty closely.

Unfortunately, you can almost never read recommendation letters (excepting your application to grad school). Your best bet is to have a heart-to-heart with someone whose opinion you respect before you go around asking for letters, and find out how the people around you see you.

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4 Josh December 8, 2011 at 1:32 am

I certainly hope that someone being described as aggressive and dominant will never be hired! And I also hope that someone described as kind will be. If not, the field is really rotten.

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5 Kamen December 9, 2011 at 1:10 pm

I agree. Scientists shouldn’t be aggressive and dominant, they should be cautious and collaborative, with a strong ability of thinking outside the box.

6 D December 9, 2011 at 1:32 am

@chris: “Kind” is a trait you never discover in a colleague unless they’re a bad scientist? I feel sorry for you if this has been your personal experience… that’s just sad.

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7 chris December 10, 2011 at 11:35 pm

@D: Kind may be an excellent trait for anyone to have, but it should not be the first thing people think of when they think of working with you. I also agree that creative, original, and innovative are also good words, along with aggressive, ambitious, independent, etc.

I think of myself as a very kind person, and I’ve no doubt others do as well. But for my advisor to describe me as kind when writing a reference letter? That means that he searched and couldn’t find *anything* else good to say about *my work as a scientist*. That is my point. Being kind and affectionate has absolutely nothing to do with being a good scientist. It might make you a nice person to work with, but that doesn’t mean that the work you do is good, which is the most important thing that an employer needs to know when hiring a researcher that is typically a completely independent worker. Your reference writers should be able to find something to say that does describe a good scientist.

Also – to the point of “speaking assertively” – If you cannot defend your opinions or positions with confidence, you cannot engage in meaningful debate. Speaking timidly or hesitantly tells others that you don’t really believe what you’re saying, so they’re not really going to debate it too strongly with you, and no one learns anything in that kind of conversation (nor has the opportunity to have their opinions changed). I’ve had this conversation before with many others, so I know what people are really seeing. I agree that it’s difficult for women to be heard sometimes (mainly because they have higher-pitched voices), but they can still learn to speak confidently and forcefully.

Affectionate, nurturing, and agreeable are even worse traits. It’s good for a mother to be affectionate and nurturing, but that doesn’t help you engage meaningfully with your colleagues and learn new things. Perhaps you could be a nurturing teacher to your students, but nurturing in a collaborative setting? That is a very bad attitude to have toward people you are supposed to be collaborating with.

I could go on and on, but I won’t. I don’t think my experience is sad at all. I think it’s the best way science can be done, and I’m not alone…

8 nick December 11, 2011 at 5:25 am

Speaking assertively is one thing. I agree that it’s important to be able to stand up for your ideas in a non-hesitant way. Whether that’s the best way to do science or not, I won’t get into. ‘Aggressive’ is another thing entirely, at least with my parsing of English. I can think of several people who I think of as aggressive when they are at a conference, and generally I don’t really appreciate their presence after about one session. Assertive can be good- I’d be disappointed to be thought of or described as aggressive.

And chris, everyone you talk to thinks that aggressive is a better trait than agreeable? That’s amazing, and aggressive doesn’t say anything about the quality of your science anyway. I’ve talked to a lot of scientists who feel the same, so I’m not alone either… different strokes etc., but a room full of aggressive scientists sounds horrifying.

9 Kamen December 9, 2011 at 1:08 pm

I am not sure why “speaking assertively” is something that should be used in a recommendation letter as a positive thing. Any fool can speak assertively and still be wrong. I sometimes speak hesitantly or timidly, but I hope I am judged by the content of what I say, not by my manner!

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10 Kelle December 9, 2011 at 6:37 pm

Sorry, Kamen, we absolutely judge people, both men and women, on their manner and posture in addition to the content of their speech. Not ideal, but true. (This phenomenon goes a long way to explaining why so many pompous assholes are successful, even ones that are often wrong.) Working on speaking with confidence is well worth the effort to be successful in any profession.

11 Kamen December 10, 2011 at 1:36 am

Oh, definitely true. I just don’t think that “she/he is very assertive” is a necessarily a plus. It depends. If you boss around your coworkers, that is a type of assertiveness that will not win you many friends. Being assertive while giving a talk is an important skill.

12 Erik Tollerud December 9, 2011 at 4:33 pm

This is an interesting wider comment on the field… While it is true that plenty of people would say that “kind” and “helpful” or “tactful” are things we want in colleagues, the problem is that it *nevertheless* induces unconscious bias in reviewers. If any of you were at last years’ winter AAS, there was a sociology professor (who’s name I don’t recall) from Michigan who gave a plenary session on bias in faculty search committees. She showed clear evidence that the use of such words ends up *lowering* the odds a woman gets hired, even though most of the committee might say those are good characteristics when not put in a gendered context.

So my read on this is that the goal should be to “de-genderify” these words, but right now, as a practical matter, those words need to be avoided if the letter is about a woman.

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13 Josh December 9, 2011 at 5:30 pm

Erik:
If the original post would have taken this draw back, I would have replied in a way less grumpy way. I do agree on both points you make.

14 Kelle December 9, 2011 at 6:21 pm

Erik did state the issue quite nicely. That is exactly the point I was trying to make with this post.

15 Bridget Falck December 15, 2011 at 3:31 pm

Erik: The professor you mention is Dr. Abby Stewart. That was a very enlightening talk.

16 Josh December 9, 2011 at 5:39 pm

Actually, in reply to myself: why is the point of this article to keep the words “kind” and “sociable” out of letters while the point should be to explicitly value them? The responsibility here doesn’t lie in the writers of the letters but in their readers.

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17 Kelle December 9, 2011 at 6:21 pm

The whole point is that the bias is *unconscious*! I agree that everybody needs to be aware of their biases and consciously make efforts to thwart them, but it’s extremely challenging. In the interest of working towards solving the problem of inequity in hiring rather than making the world a perfect place, it’s easier to change words used in the letters rather than attempting to change all of our psychology.

18 Josh December 10, 2011 at 3:52 am

Well, I think we are getting closter to agreeing here. I think one should try to do both. Being aware of unconcious biases is a way to change the psychology of people. I think I do agree that you have to do both. The sinple fact of reading this post and participating to this discussion changes the way I will (if I ever get to there, which is highly improbable) read reference letters (or any letters for that matter).

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19 Josh December 11, 2011 at 4:34 am

Chris (don’t know how to directly reply to you):
I think you extremely underestimate the importance of a good atmosphere at a work place. Not everybody needs to be a divine scientist without any demands for character. You just need a mix of good and decent people and at least some nice people at any working place

That the first description shouldn’t be “kind” in a reference letter because it doesn’t describe your work is something I agree with. That you should not ise it at all is something I’d discuss about

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20 Alan Stockton December 13, 2011 at 4:54 pm

I would be careful with the word “aggressive.” It might be OK in describing someone’s pursuit of their science, but if there were a hint that it referred to his or her interaction with colleagues, it would be a negative in my eyes, although perhaps not a completely damning one. More important than the descriptive terms you use are concrete examples to illustrate why you are using those terms. At least, this is my take, after having both written and read perhaps a couple of hundred such letters.

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