According to researchers from Rice University and the University of Houston, discriminatory language used in letters of recommendation to describe women hurts their chances of being hired. After acquiring several letters of recommendation for both women and men, researchers found that the language used to describe them was blatantly stereotypical; men were described as ‘assertive’, ‘take-charge’, ‘intellectual’, ‘dominant’, and ‘outspoken’, whereas women were described as ‘friendly’, ‘nurturing’, ‘kind’, or ‘sympathetic’.
The next step of the research involved removing identifying pronouns from the letters and placing them in front of employers (the candidates, men and women, had equal amounts of experience and education), and it was found that these ‘nurturing’ qualities that were used to describe women weren’t valued by employers. The study goes on to point out that subtle sexism exists in statements made such as, “She might make an excellent leader” and “He is already an established leader.”
The study states, “Subtle gender discrimination continues to be rampant and it’s important to acknowledge this because you can not remediate discrimination until you are first aware of it. Our and other research shows that even small differences–and in our study the seemingly inocuous choice of words– can act to create disparity over time and experiences.”
This study demonstrates how powerful word choice can be, particularly in important documents such as letters of recommendation that are completely out of our control. Hopefully this study, and similar research will raise awareness about this kind of discrimination. As someone who is applying for jobs at the moment– many of which require at least three letters of recommendation– I hope to raise awarness of the subtle discrimination that can exist in our word choice, and how powerful that choice can be.