When it comes to recommendation letters for women, kind words do more harm than good.
A recent study shows that letters of recommendation written for women tend to highlight personal characteristics — such as being collegial or nurturing — whereas letters written for men focus more on leadership qualities.
The study, conducted by researchers at Rice University and the University of Houston, analyzed the qualities mentioned in recommendation letters written for men and women applying for university faculty positions.
“Women tend to be judged as less agentic than men,” Penn sociology professor Robin Leidner said. “And agentic” — the tendency to be proactive — “is what people are looking for in hiring.”
As former Penn deputy provost, Janice Bellace oversaw the promotion and reappointment process, part of which included reading reference letters for job candidates.
“One of the things that struck me was that they nearly always commented on personal qualities of the woman,” said Bellace, now the Legal Studies department chairwoman. “Comments such as, ‘She’s very nice,’ ‘She’s outgoing,’ ‘She’s so helpful to the students’ — those sorts of comments.”
Focusing on these types of qualities may come at the expense of discussing a female candidate’s research, an important criterion in promotion within academia, she said.
According to Bellace, the tendency to highlight different qualities in men and women is largely unconscious.
“You can tell the people writing letters actually support the woman,” Bellace said. “It’s just that when you compare them to the letters written about men, you begin to see differences.”
To call attention to this trend, Bellace and the Office of the Provost commissioned a paper in 2006 on unconscious bias in the hiring process. The paper was then distributed to deans and department chairs at Penn.
“The purpose was simply to have people think about it,” she said. “How do you override or counteract an unconscious bias? The only way to do it is to make people very alert to the possibility that there’s unconscious differential treatment.”
In reviewing graduate school applications, Leidner came across several letters that focused primarily on personal qualities, though she did not notice an obvious gender bias.
“Some of this seems cultural as well as gender-oriented,” Leidner said. “Letters from professors in Korea and China, for example, often seem to refer to their students as humble, polite, kind, compassionate — that sort of thing.”
Still, Leidner says that female job applicants face a “double bind” in terms of how they come across to employers, whether in reference letters or in interviews.
“There can be penalties for women for seeming too womanlike and there can be penalties for seeming too manlike,” she said. “And a lot of qualities that are believed to make a person good at their job are considered manlike, so that’s a layer of difficulty.”
According to Patricia Rose, director of Career Services, this gender divide within recommendation letters may not have much impact for current undergraduates entering the work force.
The majority of letters written for undergraduates are for applications to graduate school. These letters tend to be shorter, focusing primarily on “scholarly promise,” Rose said.
In contrast, letters for doctoral candidates applying for jobs in academia are longer, focusing on the candidate’s teaching, leadership and capacity to participate within the department, she said.
However, Bellace says it is important for students to be aware of “unconscious bias.”
“Even your supporters may be writing a letter that in some way disfavors you in a way they don’t even realize,” she said.