How the language in letters of recommendation can hold women back

When a job application asks for a letter of recommendation, the expectation is that your letter writer will sing your praises. But a recent study published in the Journal of Business and Psychology found that these letters are not always positive and can actually hold applicants back if they are women.

When researchers from Rice University, Hunter College and CUNY Graduate Center, and the University of Houston analyzed 624 actual letters of recommendations for 174 men and women applying for eight assistant professor positions, they found that letters written for women were more likely to have “doubt raisers” that questioned an applicant’s aptitude for the job.

How doubt raisers raise red flags on female job applicants

The doubt raisers came in many shades. The most obvious was negativity, or “an overt weakness of the applicant,” that the recommender directly pointed out in red flags like: “does not have much teaching experience” or “a look at [applicant’s] publication record will show that she has not published a huge amount.”

Then came the more insidious forms of doubt like hedging where the author admitted uncertainty about a candidate, or the backhanded compliments of faint praise. As one tepid compliment for a female applicant stated: “She is unlikely to become a superstar, but she is very solid.”

Regardless of who women picked to be their all-star reference, their letters were more likely to put them at a disadvantage because of these doubt raisers. Both male and female recommenders were using more negativity, hedging, and faint praise in letters of recommendations for women compared to the letters written for men.

We are able to pick up on this doubt and respond to it. When the researchers got about 300 university professors to rate letters of recommendation, they found that negativity and hedging caused professors to rate an applicant more harshly on their research skills than otherwise identical applicants.

It’s a reminder of how bias can creep into language with even well-intentioned efforts and can still cause lasting harm to careers. We know that letters of recommendation are supposed to be heaped with praise; when a letter lacks this level of enthusiasm, we notice it.

“Letters of recommendation are usually so positively skewed to begin with that a ‘doubt-raiser’ can stand out in a sea of positivity,” Mikki Hebl, one of the authors of the study, said. “Also, recommendations are made all the time, even if they’re not in letter form. It’s so important to think about the ways language reflects subtle biases, as these spoken subtleties also may add up over time to create disparities.”

For female job applicants, fighting bias means carefully picking and coaching your chosen reference to make sure how you see yourself aligns with how your reference sees you.

But ultimately, it takes a group effort to root out bias in hiring. For institutions in academia, stopping subtle bias means raising awareness of how it happens into the selection process. The researchers found that when writers were asked to explain their ratings, they showed less gender bias against applicants.