The Power of Language: Sexism in Letters of Recommendation

By February 1, 2011R is for Research

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.

Join the discussion 3 Comments

  • Could it be that women are more friendly, nurturing, kind and sympathetic than men and therefore those letters of recommendation are actually accurate? Also, if the ‘nurturing’ qualities that were used to describe women weren’t valued by employers, could it be that the employers are sexist? Or do employers just prefer dominant and assertive people – male or female – rather than nurturing people?

    I’d like to point out that the statements “She might make an excellent leader” and “He is already an established leader.” are not inherently sexist. One clearly applies to a person who IS ALREADY a leader and the other one refers to a person who is not. Consider “He is a great husband” and “She might make an excellent wife.” Is the last statement sexist? No. The man is already married. The woman is not.

    • Mia Amélie says:

      “One clearly applies to a person who IS ALREADY a leader and the other one refers to a person who is not.”

      Although the statements themselves may not be “inherently sexist,” the tendency to perceive and identify men one way and women another does not inherently indicate reality. Furthermore, whether or not the distinction between “might make” and “is already” actually indicates sexism by the letter writers might be seen as uncertain to some, but the fact that these distinctions yield sexist results is evident and should stimulate some reconsideration of the words and phrases we choose to use.

      One question I have is: who is writing these letters of recommendation? Are women/men recommending other women/men? Could women be the authors of the “she might” statements? Or is this men unconsciously discrediting women of their accomplishments and abilities? Some research finds that women are much more likely than men to avoid assuming others will agree with opinion statements in their writing- opinion statements like “he is already an established reader.” This tactic is valuable in academic circles, but maybe not so much in letters of recommendation (props to matthewdavidpearson for this input).

  • Neil says:

    this is fascinating, and not very surprising, unfortunately.