A recommendation letter mainly aims to prove the skills, accomplishment, and competence of the person being recommended. However, new research from Rice University and the University of Houston discovered that letters of recommendation for women are more likely to consist of words and phrases that will raise doubts about job or education qualifications than the letters of recommendation written for men.
The extent of gender discrimination in academia continues to be questionable, and now, recent research has examined gender biases in letters of recommendation. The study, entitled “Raising Doubt in Letters of Recommendation for Academia: Gender Differences and Their Impact,” is currently available online and will be published in an upcoming print edition of the Journal of Business and Psychology.
The two-part report examines differences in the number of “doubt raisers” that are written in 624 actual recommendation letters and the impact of these on the 305 university professors. The researchers described “doubt raisers” as words, phrases or statements that question an applicant’s capability for a job.
These words are identified in four categories: negativity (directly saying something terrible), faint praise (indirect criticism by giving slight praise), hedges (vague language), and irrelevant description (saying unrelated things to the job description).
The findings show recommenders of both genders use more doubt raisers in letters of recommendation for women than men. It applies to negativity, hedging, and faint praises but not for irrelevancies. Since recommendation letters for women were more likely to contain doubt-raiser than those in men, women are at a disadvantage compared to men in applying for academic positions.
In the second part of the study, the researchers examined if people recognize and were influenced by doubt-raisers in a recommendation letter. The university professors were asked to rate one recommendation letter written for either a man or a woman. The findings show that presence of negativity, faint praise or hedges doubt-raisers caused the professors to rate a recommendation letter negatively. It was also found that irrelevant information doesn’t affect how the letters were evaluated.
Mikki Hebl, the lead researcher, noted that doubt raisers are considered negative regardless of the recommendation letter written for a female or male. “I would suggest avoiding these types of phrases in recommendations if you are trying to write a strong letter and to be aware that they might be more likely to unintentionally slip into letters for women than men,” Hebl said in a statement.