Saying What You Mean to Say

Some years ago I came across a psychology paper which suggested that letters of reference are subtly (or even not-so-subtly) gendered. I had never thought about it before, but it made me think much harder about the adjectives and roles I wrote about for both men and women when I write my own references. The original research explicitly considered academic letters of reference, looking at common adjectives used to describe both men and women. It even considered how these letters affected the actual hiring decisions, so by implication this therefore means it also evaluated the impact of the actual words used.

In general, women were found to be more likely to be described by rather passive and emotive words (words referred to as ‘communal’ adjectives) including affectionate, tactful, sensitive and helpful. These are words that may indeed correctly describe any individual. In themselves they are not negative words, but they may not be seen as central to an academic job. This should be contrasted to the words frequently used to describe men, words which were more likely to be ‘agentic’ words, i.e. words which stress the active sense of doing, rather than merely being; these turned out quite often to be words which might be correlated with strength. Adjectives that fit into this category include assertive, dominant, ambitious and intellectual. These words convey a sense of mastery and power, rather than a passive sense of nurturing as with the communal words.

These different adjectives should be set against some mythical ideal of what the scientist superstar might be expected to resemble. Surely mastery would widely be regarded as a ‘better’ (more relevant) virtue than caring for others or being tactful? Hence, if we really do write our letters of reference in these two, distinct and gendered styles, we may be fuelling, completely unintentionally, gender disparities in hiring. I see this as another form of unconscious bias, but one which seems not to be widely recognized by the writers or recipients of such letters. Of course, for a department hiring new staff, taking on yet another superego may not be good for departmental dynamics even it helps the grant income figures. Many people seemed to recognize the selfish academic jerk of my earlier post, and this character may too often be associated with all those agentic words, such as dominant, assertive and ambitious. Does the ambitious person just meekly accept an extra dose of teaching because someone else is on leave, or does their assertive/aggressive self come to the fore? Too often I fear the latter is true. Is this good overall for a department? Maybe, but that will depend on many factors which are almost certainly not those factors that were initially taken into consideration at the hiring stage.

However, the wisdom of hiring decisions is not my concern in this post, it is those pesky letters of reference themselves. I have been reading a heavy diet of these recently, covering people across the range of seniority and, given my awareness of the paper to which I referred earlier, I started to get sensitive. Who was being described as nurturing? Interestingly, both men and women were being described in this way. When a man was being described as collaborative and consultative, was it significant the reference had been written by a woman? Would a man have done the same? What about the woman referred to as radiating self-confidence? Would a man have been described in the same way? It would have been interesting to deconstruct and analyse all these descriptions, but I wasn’t convinced by my internal analysis that the easy split into agentic and communal words by gender (still) applied. (Mind you, if you want to be appalled by a counter-example of overt sexism in a letter of reference, I point you to a recent post on the What’s It Like to be a Woman in Philosophy website.)

The trouble is, a few choice phrases can damn someone for ever. I was particularly struck by the description of someone as ‘unfair… and a megalomaniac’ and another who had done a lot of ‘silly, inconsequential things’; a third was said to have an ‘aggressive articulate style [which] can be quite forbidding to those of a weaker constitution’– surely all those phrases must have been considered carefully. You don’t write such damning things by accident (but perhaps not everyone sees these statements as damning, particularly the last example). On the other hand if referees use words such as modest, private, quiet and undemonstrative (interestingly in my sample I saw all these words applied to men, unlike the examples in the original paper) is this good or bad? Is a highly-strung individual someone you want to have around (again describing a male)? Do we need to know these things? How will it affect the reader and what is intended to be conveyed?

The more I mulled over this, the more confused I got. What am I trying to judge? Are the letters helpful? Academia is unusual in that serious letters of reference are still collected, and not just the bland nothings which industry seems to require, asking for no more than simple things such as was your postdoc a good timekeeper, worked for you between the dates recorded on their application form and hasn’t (as far as you know) got a criminal record. I have always valued getting comprehensive references which tell me about the individual’s science, their skills (do they drop the sample on the floor, have they done more than one kind of microscopy, are they good at writing – that sort of thing for a postdoc; have they won grants and been able to forge collaborations for a lecturer etc). But I’m beginning to wonder if I’m always going to be swayed by peripheral comments which tell me more about the referee than the person I’m actually interested in, the applicant. How florid their prose is (or, as was said recently of one, that a panel member thought the referee was drunk when he wrote the reference), how vivid and extensive their supply of adjectives. Is this useful, or am I – as Daniel Kahneman has said of many selection strategies – just being fooled because it looks like I’m getting good evidence.

I feel I no longer have any clear sense of this. I started off persuaded that there were simple gender differences and one should be able to read between the lines to overcome any such inherent if unconscious bias. I ended up worrying that in most letters there are emotive words – positive or negative – that can colour my perception without necessarily having any relevant content.

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8 Responses to Saying What You Mean to Say

  1. Jennifer Saul says:

    In addition to the super-egregious one on the blog, lots of philosophers have been remarking on all the women’s references that remark on their friendliness, helpfulness, etc. And the lack of such claims for men. And in a way this is good– people are *noticing* now, which they wouldn’t have done 5 years ago. Still….

  2. I think that it is even more complicated, because the same words might be interpreted differently, depending on whether they are applied to a man or a woman. So ‘ambitious’ and ‘intellectual’ are perceived as positive attributes in a man, but may be viewed with suspicion in a woman, just because they don’t fit the usual schema.
    I *think* there is a literature on this, but I’m afraid I don’t have any sources to hand, though I guess Virginia Valian would have covered it in her book (assuming my memory is right here!)

  3. Jennifer Dougan says:

    I think it’s very difficult because you are essentially judging one unknown by the words of another unknown. Of course, if you happen to know and trust the referee then, perhaps, you can come to some kind of informed position. But this would probably be a minority of cases and even then, the petty politics in academia may still trump fair appraisal (by the referee) in some cases. This, coupled with academic relationships, between PDRA and PI for instance, being very personal ones which rely on the meeting of two individuals that can be positive or negative based on either or both parties, makes it very difficult (impossible?) to unpick from a letter…?

    And then there is the agenda of the reference-writer…

    In reality, the best you can do is appraise the combination of what the candidate says of themselves, what the referee says of them and (if appropriate) interview performance. But it’s a pickle, no doubt.

  4. Monica Biernat has done work on the shifting standards. Haven’t kept up with that line so I don’t know where it has gone since the late 90’s. Another person who looks at these types of questions is Laurie Rudman at rutgers. . There are others, but I don’t have them at my fingertips (random twitter/facebook/forumsite encounters some years back).

    It also makes me think of “the robust beauty of improper linear models”. If I remember Kahneman brought that up in his book too. Letters of recommendations seem like such an odd thing to me, but I grew up in Sweden, where that didn’t happen. Doesn’t happen now either, when we look at potential doctoral candidates, or hirees. (Though phone references happens. I’ve done that for two masters level).

    The times I do references are for students who are planning on studying abroad. Usually England or US, if I remember right.

  5. Ursula Martin says:

    Guide to Writing a Letter of Recommendation – also has references (including Valian), side-by-side male/female letters, and comments on bias

  6. Kate Jeffery says:

    I’ve stopped paying very much attention to references, other than to keep an eye out for subtexts that may be trying to say “don’t hire this person” without saying it outright. It is in the interests of people to make sure their protégés go on to good positions, so that they themselves look good – and in a less cynical vein, it is also the case that simply out of niceness, most people don’t want to kill someone’s chances by saying anything that isn’t glowingly positive. Almost every reference I read these days states that the person is an outstanding scientist, one of the most talented to come through the lab in xxx years and is recommended unreservedly. Every now and then I come across a truly honest reference and it’s so startling that it raises all sorts of alarm bells.

    When writing references myself I try to be sensitive to the unconscious tendency to use different language for men and women but it’s difficult because as Dorothy Bishop says, the same words can have different connotations when applied to men vs women. And I’m painfully aware that every adjective is a double-edged sword – if I say someone is “lively” does that mean “fun” or “extremely irritating and intrusive”? if they are “collegial” are they helpful or are they placid doormats? If they are “ambitious” does that mean they hog all the equipment and sweep aside everything that stands in their way?

    Probably, a good old-fashioned phonecall would be a better way of digging down to the truth… it’s a shame we don’t do that more. Written text is so carefully crafted it reveals very little.

    • Ursula Martin says:

      There is a reason we don’t do good old fashioned phone calls – many institutions have codes of practice on fair selection that outlaw them, or indeed seeking any kind of information beyond the CV.

      My own institution has a rule that you are not supposed to look at the letters of reference until *after* you have made a preliminary decision. Freedom of information means that candidates can ask to see letters of reference, and they can also be made public as evidence if someone decides to appeal the decision of an appointments or promotion panel.

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