How to Ensure Your References Are Gender-Neutral

Studies indicate the language often used to describe female professionals weakens their appeal to hiring managers. What can you do to level the playing field?

Do job references describe men and women in different terms?

In subtle ways executives routinely use different terms to refer to men and women in recommendations, negatively affecting job candidates they are effectively trying to praise, according to a new study. Executives, men and women alike, routinely praise women using terms “helpful,” “kind,” “sympathetic,” “nurturing” and “tactful,” all of which are less valued by recruiters and hiring managers.

Even recruiting professionals don’t always realize the gap between the ways professionals are described by their peers.

A case in point is Jill Knittel, vice president at ER Associated, an executive recruiting firm in Rochester, N.Y. When asked to comment on how a reference might use different words to describe male and female candidates’ qualifications for the same position, she said, “I don’t run into that issue. As you become a C-level professional, it’s not an issue.”

Then, to prove her point, she searched her files for recommendations she has received for male and female candidates being considered for a midlevel finance position in a public accounting firm. What she found challenged her assumption.

First, she retrieved this recommendation for a female candidate: “She cared for her clients and took very good care of their needs.”

Then, this one for a male: “He had strong relationships with his clients and was very reliable.”

“Holy cow!” said Knittel, realizing her experiment contradicted her theory. “It’s really subtle, but it happens.”

Yes, it does, and even the best-intentioned people making those recommendations may not even realize what they are doing. A recent study by researchers at Rice University concluded that the words used to describe the qualities of men and women job candidates differ. While subtle, those differences can make or break a woman’s chances of being hired or promoted.

The study focused on jobs in academia but offered lessons that can be taken to the executive level.

The researchers, Michelle Hebl and Randi Martin, along with graduate student Juan Madera, reviewed 624 letters of recommendation for academic positions at colleges and universities nationwide, and found that the letters praised women by using adjectives such as “helpful,” “kind,” “sympathetic,” “nurturing” and “tactful,” along with behaviors such as helping others, taking direction well and maintaining relationships. When those recommendations were reviewed by volunteers who were unaware of the gender of the candidate, said Martin, “the more communal the characteristics mentioned, the lower the evaluation of the candidate.”

Lisa Torres, a former professor of sociology at George Washington University and now a social science analyst at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission office in San Francisco, notes, “We expect women to have certain skills, such as communication skills, empathy and communal traits. Yet these skills are not always valued. In some cases they are penalized. But, if women are described as assertive, self-confident and accomplished, people will question, ‘Where is the team building?’ It’s sort of a Catch-22.”

Changing Perceptions, Changing Language

The way for women to deal with this issue, says Torres, is to understand why people choose the words they do, and be proactive about changing the way they think. “When you ask someone to be a reference, whether he writes a letter or speaks to someone on the phone, there’s nothing wrong with giving that person some idea of what you’d like him to say about you. You need to take some control over that message.”

Knittel agrees, saying it is imperative that job candidates — men and women — take control of the reference process.

“The first thing you should say to a prospective employer after giving her the names of your references is, ‘Give me 24 hours to get in touch with these people to let them know you are going to call.’ ”

This, Knittel said, gives you time to do two things:

  1. You ensure they are available to speak to the recruiter or prospective employer.
  2. It gives you time to brief them on the job, and explain to them why you are a good fit. “Tell them what skill set you would bring to the company. Remind them of that acquisition you worked together on, or the client you brought in. Use the language you would like them to use to characterize your skills.”

Caroline Ceniza-Levine, co-founder of SixFigureStart, a career coaching firm in New York, instructs her clients to prepare their references as part of the job-seeking process. “Educate them on what qualities and skills you want them to highlight, and give them specific examples of your work that speak to these skills. It can help avoid a well-meaning reference from giving a lukewarm recommendation.”

Educating your references, as well as the people who are reading them, will ultimately make a difference for women seeking to move up the ladder. “Subtle gender discrimination continues to be rampant,” said Hebl, one of the study’s authors. “It’s important to acknowledge that because you cannot remediate discrimination until you are aware of it.” It will take a great amount of education, among both employers and employees, before people will stop making gender-specific characterizations, said Torres.

“I can’t legislate these changes,” she said. “But I can start from the bottom up. When I write a recommendation for a female graduate student, I’m watching the words I use. I instinctively want to say what a nice person she is. Instead, I should be saying she’s brilliant.”