Avoiding Gender Bias in Reference Writing

Advice from The University of Arizona's Commission on the Status of Women:

Have a great student? Planning to write a super letter of reference? Don’t fall into these common traps based on unconscious gender bias.

Keep it professional

Letters of reference for women are seven times more likely to mention personal life - something that is almost always irrelevant for the application. Also, make sure you use formal titles and surnames for both men and women.

Be careful raising doubt

We all want to write honest letters, but negative or irrelevant comments, such as ‘challenging personality’ or ‘I have confidence that she will become better than average’ are twice as common in letters for female applicants. Don’t add doubt unless it is strictly necessary!

Stay away from stereotypes

Although they describe positive traits, adjectives like ‘caring’, ‘compassionate’ and ‘helpful’ are used more frequently in letters for women and can evoke gender stereotypes which can hurt a candidate. And be careful not to invoke these stereotypes directly (‘she is not emotional’).

Emphasize accomplishments, not effort

Letters for reference for men are more likely to emphasize accomplishments (‘his research’, ‘his skills’, or ‘his career’) while letters for women are 50 percent more likely to include ‘grindstone’ adjectives that describe effort. ‘Hardworking’ associates with effort, but not ability.

Don’t stop now!

On average, letters for men are 16% longer than letters for women and letters for women are two-and-half times as likely to make a minimal assurance (‘she can do the job’) rather than a ringing endorsement (‘she is the best for the job’).

Mention research and publications

Letters of reference for men are four times more likely to mention publications and twice as likely to have multiple references to research. Make sure you put these critical accomplishments in every letter!

Adjectives to avoid:

caring, compassionate, hard-working, conscientious, dependable, diligent, dedicated, tactful, interpersonal, warm, helpful 

Adjectives to include:

successful, excellent, accomplished, outstanding, skilled, knowledgeable, insightful, resourceful, confident, ambitious, independent, intellectual

We all share bias

It is important to remember that unconscious gender bias isn’t a male problem. Research shows that women are just as susceptible to these common pitfalls as men. This is a problem for all of us—let’s solve it together!

Research from Trix, F & Psenka, C. Exploring the color of glass: Letters of recommendation for female and male medical faculty. Discourse & Society, 2003; and Madera, JM, Hebl, MR, & Martin, RC. Gender and letters of Recommendation for Academia: Agentic and Communal Differences. Journal of Applied Psychology, 2009.