Do You Want to be Described as Hard Working?

I visited Oxford this week to talk to the Women in Physics group, mainly made up of students and postdocs (not all of whom were women). Tea and excellent scones were provided to stimulate good discussion. I was duly grilled as the voice of experience and asked to provide advice about career progression and setbacks. I want to highlight one particular question that was raised by a student looking to apply for fellowships and needing letters of reference to be written on their behalf. Should she, she asked, point out to her supervisor that a letter that said she was a good team player might be of limited use.

What she was getting at was the fact that people can, often without deliberate intent, write such letters in a very gendered way. A few years ago this seemed little appreciated. People ‘knew’ what the sterling values for a woman should be – being conscientious, kind, helpful, a good team player or hard-working might all have been regarded as praise. But it was praise of a kind that does not necessarily imply high performance in a laboratory let alone in a new research fellow. The words that are required to land such a position are more likely to involve qualities such as drive, potential, creativity, imagination, excellence and to be regarded as outstanding, stellar or ‘top of the class’.

So, if letter writers just sit down and write the first adjectives that come into their head to describe men and women, the words may be poles apart even if the subjects of the letters are indistinguishable in ability. Clearly, this can lead to significant detriment to the woman’s progression even if without a sexist intent. As with so many of the different strands that make up unconscious bias, making the bias conscious so that the letter writer pauses, pen metaphorically in the air, may make all the difference. Do you really mean your star female PhD student is hard-working and conscientious – or was the message that you wanted to convey in fact that she was outstanding, goes the extra mile and always exceeds your expectations about what is possible, demonstrating great originality en route? There is an enormous difference in the impact of the two descriptions.

For the supervisor whose pen is now aloft but frozen in their hand as they realise they haven’t a clue how to tackle this letter-writing business which is turning out a lot more challenging than they’d anticipated, help is at hand. When I first wrote about this issue back in 2012, citing a 2009 study by J. Madera, M. Hebl and R. Martin in the Journal of Applied Psychology, the topic had not yet received a great deal of attention. However now you can, for instance, write your letter of reference and pass it through a website which will highlight words that may be perceived as gendered. You will soon be able to tell quite how many words of dubious worth you’ve included. Hence you can deduce whether the description is what you intended or something far from it. After all, some of us some of the time may feel the kindest thing we can say about the dunce in the group (whatever their gender) is that they are hard-working in which case well and good. Sometimes being a team player may be an absolutely crucial skill for a particular role, in which case go for it.

Additionally there are style-writing guides amplifying the basic points I am making here. For generic jobs you might want to look here; or a similar set of advice addressed specifically to scientists, indeed astronomers, here. Whereas a few years ago a Google search for ‘gendered letters of reference’ threw up very little, now it will produce multiple hits. This is progress of sorts.

However, to come back to the original question, there is an additional element implied in the question. The student was applying now for fellowships. Would it be tactful now to raise this topic – or was it actually too late? I consider it might turn out to be distinctly awkward to stand over the supervisor who is about to draft your letter of reference pointing out what they write shouldn’t be gendered and please could they include lots of superlatives. It could be seen as pretty pushy if not downright offensive! Maybe this is something that in general the concerned student should slip into a discussion weeks/months in advance; perhaps it could be brought up in a journal club debate or an Athena Swan workshop. Departments could also circulate information annually to their staff to remind them of the possibility of double standards in adjectives and nouns peppering references. There are plenty of sites now putting out information covering this topic, so it isn’t necessary for every department to reinvent this particular wheel, even if it may still be necessary for each and every one actively to promote this information.

For the reader of such letters of reference it is important to know when someone is described as hard-working because that’s the kindest thing anyone can say, and when the writer actually meant to convey an extremely positive impression but is unaware that their description is gendered and liable to be read in a very differnt way. The more this issue is discussed explicitly, the less women will be unintentionally disadvantaged.

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9 Responses to Do You Want to be Described as Hard Working?

  1. Julia says:

    Very insightful post! I often write reference letters (mainly for undergrads), and I always find it such a pity that we as academics don’t *really* get any training in how to write these things properly. Having read a lot of growth mindset books and articles over the summer, hard-working now sounds to me like a very good property for a person to have! However, I see that it can be taken in the wrong light. I hope that if accompanied by the right other adjectives it might convey the intended meaning. Such as “X combines her native ability with hard work to reach a deep understanding of the subject” or some such thing.
    Thanks for the links, I will have a look at them before writing my next set of references. My problem with references is also that one somehow can’t be honest, one has to write in some sort of code. Not saying a certain thing apparently carries as much meaning as saying another thing. But again, we have to learn this by possibly discussion with more experienced colleagues, or in one case recently being told by an agent to please change a certain sentence as it comes across in too negative a light…

    Training in writing references would be very welcome! Maybe there is some already… but there are just so many things academics are expected to know how to do and to do well without really ever having been taught them…

    • My comments were targetted more at references written for researchers – so PhD students or postdocs – than undergraduates. I’m sure for them a ‘hard-working’ comment amplified as you suggested would be entirely reasonable. However I think at any level, if only comments of the hard-working, team-playing and conscientious variety appear, it implies a lack of stellar qualities.

      I agree more training might be helpful! The very first serious letter of reference I wrote (for a postdoc), where I did write something I thought was honest and fair, the secretary (this was back in the days when they typed letters!) brought it back to me saying I couldn’t possibly write such comments. I hadn’t realised there was a code….

      • Maria says:

        “hard-working” sounds bad particularly if not accompanied by other superlatives. I think the more senior you become the worse “hard-working” gets. I would think that a “hard-working” student (in comparison to all the lazy people on the course) is a positive description while a “hard-working” postdoc without a mention of her brilliance is a harsh judgment. Even worse: “devoted” (particularly when it is combined with “hard-working”).

        Similarly, I think “enthusiastic” is a pretty harsh judgment if not accompanied by other superlatives like “brilliant” (except maybe “hard-working”). “Enthusiastic” is ok for a student (who might sit in a course with lots of unenthusiastic students). For a researcher, it makes her look incompetent (as if she tried hard but she did not achieve anything).

        I am not sure about “passionate”.

  2. Saskia says:

    That website is an excellent resource to check for bias !!!! Absolutely something I want to share with my colleagues !!!

  3. Harold Bekkering says:

    Hear, hear. Many good suggestions in general and likely pitfalls when it comes to implicit gender biases. I will try even harder to write appropriate refence letters for all members.

  4. Rachel Segalman says:

    Thanks, Athene! As a department chair, I’ve recently read a large number of letters for various people and to my dismay, these issues were incredibly prevalent at all levels… While these letters were all written outside by colleagues outside my institution, I now feel obligated to do a training at our next faculty meeting. Any suggestions for materials to distribute (in addition to links to the calculator)? This documentation from Arizona State is the best I’ve found so far:

  5. Julii Brainard says:

    But I AM hard-working… and I am not creative or top-class. Oh well!!

  6. Lynne Walling says:

    As someone who has been on many interview committees in math, in the US and in the UK, I am aware of how differently some (many?) people write letters for female candidates as opposed to male candidates. It can be helpful if the interview panel and whoever is involved in ranking the candidates are “reminded” of implicit bias and how is manifests itself. There are implicit bias tests one can take.

    One tactic some have used when short-listing candidates is: after making an initial long-list, have the selection committee go back and look again at the long-listed applications submitted by women or anyone else who can be identified as coming from an under-represented group. This can really help the section committee members see past the gender biased choice of adjectives, and I have seen committees then raise many applications from women rise to the top of the long-list, becoming part of the short-list.

    Hard-working is not necessarily a negative descriptor for a researcher, as long as it’s accompanied by other descriptors. We need to remember that there are different styles of thinkers; one of the Myers-Briggs divisions is between “intuitive” and “sensing”. Those who are intuitive make big leaps, and I think these people are those often tagged as “brilliant”. Being a “sensing” thinker, in a workshop I attended I told the workshop leader that I was jealous of the “intuitive” thinkers; she told me to wait to see what was to be revealed in our exercises, which showed that the intuitive thinkers are (often) jealous of the sensing thinkers, as we proceed methodically and produce solid results. Creativity does not just come in leaps; I gain insights by my careful probing, and then come to conclusions AND their proofs. This does not make my work less original than that of intuitive thinkers.

    As people writing and reading letters, we need to keep in mind implicit bias, and I think it is entirely appropriate to remind others on a selection committee of implicit bias.

  7. Jacqueline Oti says:

    I am an IT professional and I am described, in the main, as being “hard-working” and on occasions, as “conscientious”.

    I was only vaguely inclined to think that some other adjectives ought to be used to describe me that do not convey an idea of struggle almost as if I J.A.M. it overcoming extreme difficulties that are “naturally” in place for me, in particular, as if I am without the natural aptitude or inbuilt capabilities required to successfully take a project from the point of a problem situation to another of a solution, finally managing to get to the finish line and survive.

    It was in passing that I thought these things. Reading this article has caused me to consider again the image conjured by the adjectives used to describe my work ethic. Whilst I do work hard making accomplishments through self-application and perseverance, it would more qualify my position if I was described as being driven, motivated and focused. Attribution of these descriptors is more empowering even to the senses, as well as, being accurate.

    To describe me primarily as “hard-working” and “conscientious” is as if I have not matured since my school days when I was described in my school reports with exactly the same adjectives even though as an adult professional my life is reflective of growth, progress and advancement beyond those days. Either that or the world has not evolved in its perception.

    Yet, there may be room to apply these considerations to a wider context. Often in expressing appreciation for employees collectively, a manager will say: “Thanks for all your hard work”. Is it possible that to some extent the same mindset is carried over when describing an individual without extending to the effort of specificity, quantification or expansion?

    Thanks for this thought-provoking article.

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