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Study: Recommendation letters can hinder women

By Daniel de Vise

Research from Rice University suggests that a recommendation letter can hinder, rather than help, a woman seeking a job or a promotion.

Recommendation letters tend to describe women in social or emotive terms, while they tend to portray men as active or assertive. Women are described as affectionate, helpful and kind, according to a summary of the study released by Rice. Men are described as confident, aggressive and ambitious.

Those differences can cost women a job.

Rice researchers Michelle Hebl and Randi Martin and grad student Juan Madera, now on faculty at the University of Houston, reviewed 624 letters of recommendation for 194 applicants for eight faculty positions at an unnamed university.

Then they asked faculty members to rate the letters, after removing names and personal pronouns. The readers generally gave lower marks to the female candidates, based on the adjectives invoked to describe them.

The finding "suggests that gender norm stereotypes can influence hireability ratings of applicants," Martin said in the release.

Those recommending the job candidates raised subtle doubts over the abilities of female applicants to thrive as managers. Recommendation letters for women used such phrases as, "She might make an excellent leader," while letters for men might say, "He is already an established leader."

The study, "Gender and Letters of Recommendation for Academia," was published last year in the Journal of Applied Psychology but has not been previously publicized.

"Subtle gender discrimination continues to be rampant," Hebl said. " ... [T]he seemingly innocuous choice of words can act to create disparity over time and experiences."

The study is one of the first to examine the role of the recommendation in feedling the disparity between men and women in the pipeline of faculty jobs in higher education.

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By Daniel de Vise  | November 10, 2010; 1:06 PM ET
Categories:  Administration, Pedagogy, Research  | Tags:  Rice study, recommendation letters Rice study, recommendation letters cost women jobs, recommendation letters hurt women, recommendations hinder women  
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