Interpreting letters of reference

Woman writing letterLetters of recommendation (or ‘references’) for job candidates can differ depending on whether the candidate is a man or a woman. For candidates of equal merit, letters of recommendation written for women are likely to be, for example, shorter, to emphasise supportive attributes rather than leadership qualities, and to contain few superlatives. These differences may reflect an unconscious bias among writers of such letters, who are usually senior men. By bearing in mind the possibility that men and women candidates could be described differently, members of selection panels may be able to moderate these differences and so minimise the effect of the bias.

To improve employment prospects for women, you could:

  • Recognise that references are difficult to write
  • Be alert to stereotypes
  • Recognise the scope of the reference
  • Interpret ‘faint praise’
  • Allow for the potential for leadership
  • Understand candidates’ own unconscious bias

Recognise that references are difficult to write

When a job applicant is seeking a letter of recommendation, they look for colleagues of high status to write them. While it remains the case that most senior colleagues in technical professions are men, it will also be the case that most letters of recommendation will be written by an older man. Sometimes, these letters reflect traditional values that place less value on women’s contributions.

It is also far easier to write a reference for someone similar to oneself, so a senior colleague more used to a male-dominated environment may find that writing a letter of recommendation for a junior woman presents some unfamiliar challenges.

Be alert to stereotypes

Writers of references often take up space in the letter setting out their own credentials as a referee, and, being inevitably more senior, their careers can diminish the applicant’s achievements in comparison. Letters for female applicants tend to be shorter than those for men, and include less specific information about the candidate. A short reference can be taken to mean that the writer was unenthusiastic about the candidate, but it could simply be that they did not know much about them, which makes their letter less reliable. Reference letters for the candidate who gets the job are usually the longest.

Some of the differences between references for men and women reinforce stereotypes. While a woman may be described as ‘this lady’ or even ‘this young lady’, a man will be described as ‘this colleague’ or ‘this engineer’. Men are sometimes credited with a sense of humour; women rarely are. Comments about appearance appear primarily in references for women; similarly, information about personal circumstances rarely appears in references for men (and is appropriate for neither). Compare reference letters across a group of applicants to identify differences of style and content before you use them to make judgements about the candidates.

Women are also described in terms of personal qualities such as ‘polite’, ‘cooperative’, and ‘thoughtful’, rather than their professional attributes. Men’s achievements are more likely to be described specifically and in technical terms, whereas women’s achievements are set out generally and in everyday language. So when reading a letter of recommendation, a selection panel should be alert to what may have been left out of descriptions of women.
If you are concerned about what is not being said, you could contact the referee to enquire about omissions.

Interpreting ‘faint praise’

Women are often recognised for their hard work, meticulousness, dedication and other such traits that show determined application and effort. This implies that what they achieve it is due to labour, rather than ability or talent. Women are also complimented on their pastoral work and on their ability to follow instructions.

References for male candidates often repeat positive words and use superlatives: an excellent candidate will be excellent in many regards, as well as superb and first-rate. References for women candidates are less likely to repeat positive words, although they may use them once.

A reference for a woman that is moderately positive may indicate a candidate who is just as good as a man whose reference is extremely positive. Women risk being damned by faint praise: their successes may be qualified. A woman may ‘hide her shyness well’; or achieve ‘despite personal issues’; or have succeeded ‘with the support of her manager’. It seems that the traditional feminine virtue of modesty is still being attributed even to successful professional women.

According to the University of Arizona’s Commission on the Status of Women, references about women use adjectives such as caring, compassionate, hard-working, conscientious, dependable, diligent, dedicated, tactful, interpersonal, warm and helpful. References about men use adjectives such as successful, excellent, accomplished, outstanding, skilled, knowledgeable, insightful, resourceful, confident, ambitious, independent and intellectual.

Allow for the potential for leadership

Status is often inferred from ownership. In the rhetoric of references, men have possession of their relevant assets: ‘his research’, or ‘his business connections’. Women are more likely to look involved rather than proprietorial: ‘the research from that group is … ‘, or ‘she interacts well with our business connections’. Women tend to be given possession of more personal qualities such as ‘her dedication’ and ‘her patience’. One tactic to make biases in the writing stand out is to gender swap reference letters. Does a phrase or sentence ‘sound wrong’ when it’s referring to a man rather than a woman? If so, that’s bias at work.

Men are described as agents: they make things happen. Women are described as concerned with the welfare of the group, supporting others and keeping things going. These are usually considered secondary roles in most organisations. In a business, making things happen is usually a role for management or leadership; supporting others is a more junior role. If a women is described more in terms of her supportive capacities than her male competitors for a job, then she is likely to look less well suited to a more senior or managerial post.

Understanding candidates’ own unconscious bias

Although most letters of recommendation are written by men, the letters written by women often show similar biases. Not only that, but women applicants themselves often make unduly modest claims about their own achievements in their covering letter or personal statement. It is therefore worth comparing the letters of recommendation and personal statements to the candidates’ CVs. As a factual list, the CV may allow for deeper insight into the more descriptive claims. For example, a woman who has ‘presented some papers at conferences’ may have given 14 papers and a keynote speech; ‘a few decent publications’ may have been in the highest quality journals; and good financial management skills may refer to an R&D budget in the millions. Identify modest claims and compare them to the facts provided in the CV. Is the candidate being unduly self-effacing?

While studies about the differences in letters of recommendation for men and women candidates come to some clear conclusions, less well understood is the extent to which these differences affect who is appointed. If the candidate is interviewed, their direct personal impact may render the written accounts less powerful. It is therefore important to interpret all the evidence you have about each candidate as a whole, and to understand how differing accounts can arise.

Posted in Advocacy & Policy.

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