You are reading a letter of recommendation that praises a candidate for a faculty job as being "caring," "sensitive," "compassionate," or a "supportive colleague." Whom do you picture?
New research suggests that to faculty search committees, such words probably conjure up a woman -- and probably a candidate who doesn't get the job. The scholars who conducted the research believe they may have pinpointed one reason for the "leaky pipeline" that frustrates so many academics, who see that the percentage of women in senior faculty jobs continues to lag the percentage of those in junior positions and that the share in junior positions continues to lag those earning doctorates.
The research is based on a content analysis of 624 letters of recommendation submitted on behalf of 194 applicants for eight junior faculty positions at an unidentified research university. The study found patterns in which different kinds of words were more likely to be used to describe women, while other words were more often used to describe men.
In theory, both sets of words were positive. There's nothing wrong, one might hope, with being a supportive colleague. But the researchers then took the letters, removed identifying information, and controlled for such factors as number of papers published, number of honors received, and various other objective criteria. When search committee members were asked to compare candidates of comparable objective criteria, those whose letters praised them for "communal" or "emotive" qualities (those associated with women) were ranked lower than others.For more specific letter-writing suggestions, here are some great tips from the National Center for Women & Information Technology (NCWIT) to consult when writing letters for women. It has suggestions for how to help avoid biased language, for example, focus on the technical/research/leadership skills as opposed to interpersonal ones, avoid "doubt raisers" (i.e., "it appears her health is stable...", "she sure managed to publish a lot despite having twins"), an so on. For research jobs, keep the teaching-gushing to a minimum - it's much, much better to gush over her research.
And for letter askers (of both sexes) - a really nice thing you can do for referees is to give them a bulleted list of things you'd like them to mention in the letter, particular action verbs you'd like them to use, and so on. And don't be shy about explicitly mentioning things you'd rather they didn't mention. For example, marital status, parental status, family caregiving duties, disabilities, etc. Even if it's obvious to you these things don't belong in a letter, your referees might forget and mention them. That's where a checklist can be very helpful.