Study: Letters of recommendation may hinder female faculty hopefuls

BY SAM LANE | NOVEMBER 18, 2010 7:20 AM

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When people call Asabi Dean's name in a waiting room, they have to look around to see whom they've called.

Dean, a fourth-year doctoral student at the University of Iowa, classifies her name as unisex — and she said she's never had problems with letters of recommendation for the faculty positions she's seeking.

A recent study from Rice University appeared to show that those letters of recommendations may be a hinderance to women trying to gain faculty positions.

The study found letter writers tend to use more communal terms, such as "affectionate," "helpful," and "sympathetic" when referring to female applicants and used agentic terms such as "confident," "aggressive," and "ambitious" when talking about male candidates.

Test subjects were asked to rate the letters on whether they'd hire the candidate. Randi Martin, one of the researchers, said the readers gave negative weight to letters with the communal terms.

Dean, a 35-year-old Chicago native, said she thinks letter writers will see the study and review their letters to make sure they're basing it on specific qualities, not personality traits.

"I don't think it's relevant," Dean said. "Who wants to know if I'm being affectionate if I'm going for an academic job?"

Rebecca Anthony, the director of the Educational Placement Office in the UI's College of Education, said that in the thousands of letters she's read, has never noticed stronger language on letters about men.

She said she doesn't think women should change anything about their professional style to cause a letter writer to change her or his wording.

"I think it would be a mistake," she said, and today, applicants will not get a call for an interview with a school if they don't have letters of recommendations.

With the study, Martin said she hopes letter writers will think about the terms they use in the recommendations they write.

At the UI, applicants for faculty positions are typically required to submit letters of recommendation, a résumé, and some sort of teaching evaluation.

Tom Rice, the UI associate provost for faculty, said the university's letter readers have been especially thoughtul in reviewing materals from minorities and women and it's improving.

This year, more than 35 percent of UI professors are women. Four years ago, that number was barely above 31.

Rice said the UI Office of Equal Opportunity and Diversity reviews materials from women and minority applicants who weren't brought to the interview process and ocassionally asks interviewers to justify their decision.

Michelle Hebl, one of the Rice professors involved in the study, said many universities have search training, which teaches readers and interviewers what to look for and ask about when reviewing candidates.

But Hebl said everyone's guilty of stereotyping.

"Do I think remediation is possible?" she said. "It's really critical the results get out first."

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