Writing reference letters & avoiding gender bias

Today we borrow from the news section of the Yale Women Faculty Forum. ‘Tis the season to write letters of recommendation, and the data show that gender bias in letters is common, the gender of the writer and the strength of the candidate notwithstanding.

Letters for men tend to be longer and stress their accomplishments (they are four times as likely to mention publications, for example, than letters for women). Meanwhile, letters for women tend to be shorter, are seven times more likely to mention their personal lives, and stress qualities like effort and helpfulness. This one-page resource suggests quick, useful advice based on research: for instance, tilt toward insightful rather than compassionate; use words like resourceful, independent, or skilled rather than diligent. Also, Yale WFF links to this gender bias calculator, which will apparently scan your letter for what it considers flag words (among them teaching and students . . .).

3 thoughts on “Writing reference letters & avoiding gender bias

  1. Interesting article! I hope that more work is done to try to refine these ideas. I tried the calculator and found that the last letter that I wrote for a male TA had far more female words than the one that I wrote for a female TA….but that is more reflective of the ratio of time that they spend teaching for me vs taking classes from me.

  2. Very interesting, I especially like the calculator. My letters seem to have 2x the number of male-associated words as female-associated, for strong candidates both male and female. For less-strong candidates, my letters are often balanced with male- and female-associated words. Interestingly, I use the word ‘work’ often in letters for women (“she presented her work”…”she worked on…”, “hard-working”, “teamwork”). I suspect the noun might be ok but the verb/adjective can be problematic? That’s something I can watch for in future letters.

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