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Damning With Praise

Bad news, ladies: your recommendation letters could be sinking your faculty job and/or your promotion chances. According to a new study published in the American Psychological Association’s Journal of Psychology, letters that describe candidates in “communal” or cooperative terms—e.g., “agreeable,” “helpful,” “nurturing,”—are less highly regarded by search committees (hat tip: The Juggle) than are active terms. And, of course, the cooperative terms are most often used to describe female candidates, while active terms—like “confident,” “aggressive,” and “independent”—which are more highly regarded by search committees, are typically reserved for male candidates, the researchers at Rice University and the University of Houston found in their examination of 624 recommendation letters for 194 applicants for eight university faculty jobs.

As Paula Szuchman, a Juggle contributor, rightly points out, what’s most troubling about these findings “isn’t that such cooperative qualities are underappreciated by those doing the hiring (at least in academia),” but that women are characterized in those gendered terms because they’re female, not because they are “actually more kind or sympathetic than the men.”

The researchers note another disturbing trend: that recommendation-letter writers often describe women in uncertain terms—using phrases such as “she might make an excellent leader” versus what they used for male candidates, “he is already an established leader.”

“This research not only has important implications for women in academia but also for women in management and leadership roles,” Michelle Hebl, a professor of psychology and management at Rice who helped write the study, said in a university press release. “A large body of research suggests that communality is not perceived to be congruent with leadership and managerial jobs.”

So, a word to the wise for all you writers of recommendation letters: Choose your words carefully and ix-nay on the feminine adjectives.

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