If you are described in letters of recommendation as being “supportive”, “nurturing”, “kind”, or “sensitive”, do such words help or hurt your chances at a job in a STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) field?
A new study suggests that these qualities are most often associated with women, and job candidates who are described in such terms are ranked lower than those described with terms such as “confident”, “aggressive”, “independent”, or “daring”. The researchers found differences in the types of words used to describe men and women in an analysis of 624 letters of recommendation for 194 job candidates (junior faculty positions at a research university).
Both male and female letter writers were more likely to ascribe “emotive” traits to female candidates than to men, and such praise was more likely to lower their chances of being hired. Presumably, university hiring committees, upon reading that a candidate was a caring, kind person, might envision someone unable to develop an ambitious research program.
What was striking to me about the study was that letter writers could unknowingly create a feminine stereotype that might negatively influence a hiring committee. Some letter writers might praise a woman’s gentle nature, not realizing what message this might send to a potential employer.
I wondered if I had used such words when writing letters for females in the past. When I looked back at some former letters, I found that I occasionally described someone as “caring about students” or being a “congenial team member”. However, I found that I had rarely used “feminine” terms and had instead used words such as “assertive”, “confident”, “tenacious”, etc.
I don’t know if I subconsciously avoided feminine descriptions. I always try to emphasize those qualities that I know will be important in succeeding in a science career. Apparently, my instincts were right. It's aggravating that praising someone for being sensitive and kind hurts their chances at a science job (or maybe it's just academic faculty positions?), but I’ll definitely be careful in the future about what words I choose to describe someone.
Photo Credit: modified still image from Legally Blonde