The Perils of “Nice,” Cont’d: Recommendation Edition

I got to see a letter of rec this week, and was stunned at the way it sabotaged my client, a SUPERB AND TOTALLY HARD-ASS candidate.   It did this apparently from the best of intentions, by burying her achievements in endless verbiage about how “nice” she is, and focusing excessively on the warmth of relationship between the writer and my client, rather than on the client’s actual achievements as a scholar.

If you’re wondering why the client had a copy of her letter of recommendation….well, she’s in the hard sciences, and apparently it isn’t a completely unknown practice over there for recommenders to openly share their letters with the objects of recommendation.

Anyway, when I mentioned it to the client, she was way ahead of me. She directed me to this piece in the Chronicle, “Damning with Praise.”

“Bad news, ladies: your recommendation letters could be sinking your faculty job and/or your promotion chances,” the article starts.

“According to a new study published in the American Psychological Association’s Journal of Psychology, letters that describe candidates in “communal” or cooperative terms—e.g., “agreeable,” “helpful,” “nurturing,”—are less highly regarded by search committees (hat tip: The Juggle) than are active terms. And, of course, the cooperative terms are most often used to describe female candidates, while active terms—like “confident,” “aggressive,” and “independent”—which are more highly regarded by search committees, are typically reserved for male candidates, the researchers at Rice University and the University of Houston found in their examination of 624 recommendation letters for 194 applicants for eight university faculty jobs.”

She told me that she had shared that piece with the recommender, and was hoping the message would get through. If the letter isn’t rewritten, she’s going to have to jettison the recommender, who unfortunately, is her advisor. The recommender is a woman.

The article goes on to quote Paula Szuchman: “what’s most troubling about these findings ‘isn’t that such cooperative qualities are underappreciated by those doing the hiring (at least in academia),’ but that women are characterized in those gendered terms because they’re female, not because they are ‘actually more kind or sympathetic than the men.’”

This is a real danger, people. Advisors—please beware how you write about women candidates. Do not substitute praise for their pleasant personalities for evidence of their actual substantive scholarly achievements.

The researchers also noted another disturbing trend: “that recommendation-letter writers often describe women in uncertain terms—using phrases such as ‘she might make an excellent leader’ versus what they used for male candidates, ‘he is already an established leader.’”

Candidates—I know that in most fields you don’t get to see the letters that people are writing for you, and this is a perennial source of uncertainty and stress.

But, to the extent that you can, please be alert to ways your letter-writers might be sabotaging you inadvertently, and make sure that all of your recommenders have your cv and all information about your full list of scholarly achievements close at hand as they write the letter. And also, that you continually update them with your most recent achievements moving forward.

You don’t want to be remembered as the “sweet young thing” of your MA program when you’re trying to establish yourself as a hard-core competitive scholar.

(Incidentally, this problem continues to apply all the way through women’s tenure cases. I saw it when I had the chance to review the tenure letters and the departmental reports associated with those cases.)

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The Perils of “Nice,” Cont’d: Recommendation Edition — 23 Comments

  1. I was wondering, when I read that, whether phrases like “competitive” and “aggressive” would be perceived the same way if they are associated with one gender or the other… someone must have done research on this. I could imagine that if a man is described that way, it is perceived as positive, while if it relates to a woman, it is perceived as something negative. If that is the case (let’s hope not) it’s hard to write a good letter of recommendation for a female! Just a thought…

  2. I’m not using my real name for a reason…but not only have I seen all of my letters (in fact, one school said I needed to send it to them directly myself) but the person writing my recommendation (an adviser) asked me to write it first and then they would “edit.”

    • I find this practice reprehensible, but for a whole different set of reasons, related to the laziness and passivity of graduate advisors. However, it does mean you can avoid the nice problem. Well, except, I believe that the letters people write for themselves are actually less substantive and more tonally-strange than those written legitimately by recommenders. A person cannot write a letter for themselves that is equivalent to that written by a true recommender who is committed, attentive, rigorous, and generous of spirit.

  3. In cases where the letters are not disclosed to us, but we suspect this may very well be true, how do we address this without undermining or offending those whose help we rely on?

    • I suppose you could share the Chronicle column with your letter writers and have a conversation in person or on email with them about it…? Other things involve making sure that you don’t actually act in any ways that over-emphasize your niceness, and as I said, being pretty insistent that the writer is constantly and substantively updated about your latest accomplishments.

      • Yes, I do have a tendency to overemphasize my niceness and downplay my extensive accomplishments. I will keep this in mind as I move forward. By the way, I also really appreciated your 2 videos on the wimpy woman’s style of speaking versus the authoritative woman’s style. A couple of friends of mine recommended your blog for other posts. You have many wise words for a new generation! (p.s. on a technical note, pressing the backspace key has the effect of erasing my comment and bringing me back to the previous page; not sure if this is a blogsite, local, or universal error.)

  4. Wow, Karen, I was just thinking the other day — as I was composing a letter of recommendation for a former TA of mine — that I would love to see a post on effective LORs. (I don’t recall seeing one in the past and I believe I’ve read every single post on this website.) What in your opinion, as someone who has probably read scores of these, are the things that separate bad from good letters or good from great letters? I imagine that most LORs rave about the brilliance of the candidate, but what stands out in a sea of praise? I have a sort of boilerplate that I use for my undergrads but with graduate students — and in this case one of my favorite grad students of all time — I try to tailor them to their specific strengths and speak of concrete situations where these strengths were on view in the classroom. I should say that for this current letter I am only writing about teaching; as much as I would love to discuss the fascinating and illuminating conversations we’ve had about his research, I’m not his advisor and not on his committee. So then, in the case of a teaching letter, do I follow the same advice on teaching statements (show with evidence rather than tell)? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this matter. Thanks!


    • ‘ve been asked for a post on this question many times. I’ll put it up shortly, since this is the start of the LOR season.

      • I’d love to see more on this as well. Is calling someone “brilliant,” for example, useful or trite (assuming, of course, it’s backed up by examples)? Are there key words that should be used or are the supporting anecdotes more important than the language?

        • “Brilliant” is not, to my mind, a gendered adjective, although it does run the risk of overstatement and overuse. But the key in all things is to give substantive evidence, not just adjective-based claims.

  5. Out of curiosity, do you think female students who are *not* “agreeable, helpful, or nurturing” and *are* “confident, aggressive, and independent” need to worry about this issue? Not that I’m disagreeable and unhelpful, but I’m definitely less nurturing and communal than other women in my department. Will letter writers still revert to this kind of thing? Will it potentially harm me on the other side of the spectrum, since I fail to conform to the stereotype?

    • Women always run the risk of being seen as bitchy, cold, or aggressive when they are just being garden variety confident and assertive. But I’ve always felt that such a risk is definitely worth it, and far lower than the risk of a woman being patronized or underestimated if she comes across as too “sweet” and nurturing.

  6. Ugh… now I’m just realizing that not only my LORs for my PhD programs were all women (well, there weren’t any appropriate male professors) and now it looks like my PhD committee is quite likely to be made up of all women (they just happen to have the areas of expertise I need).


    • This is not necessarily a problem! Absolutely not. An all-woman committee can be fantastic—engaged, funny, committed, collaborative and cooperative. Just make sure that it doesn’t become a chocolate chip cookie love-fest and always stays firmly (or at least primarily) in the realm of professional accomplishment.

  7. I just came across a ‘recommendation’ from a male CEO to a female employee on LinkedIn:

    “Quite sensitive, but thats because she cares”

  8. But as a student, what CAN one do? I was a victim (I suspect) of this earlier this year, when my adviser presented me in a recommendation letter as a “compassionate colleague” rather than a kick-ass musician. (And I didn’t get the gig.)

    Compassion aside, is there ANY appropriate way for an advanced graduate student to approach the person who will within the next 2 years be the gatekeeper for one’s degree (and who thus has a great deal of power over one’s future) and say, “Hey, thanks for the recommendation letter, but I need you to go back to edit it”??

    Help…I’m going to need more letters from him in the next 2 years, and I would love to get this dealt with…

    • I have a post called “How to Write a Recommendation Letter” that I wrote with this kind of problem in mind; you can perhaps bring it up to your advisor to discuss perhaps in the context of YOU wanting to learn how to write letters. Then you can say, “I want to be particularly careful about how I depict women because of what this says here….” and that may get the mssg across.

  9. I just wanted to share this website that I’ve stumbled upon (via Physical Anthropology Women’s Mentoring Network), called the Gender Bias Calculator. It allows the user to enter the text of the recommendation letter and then calculates whether the letter is more female or make biased, based on the words used in the letter. It seems like an excellent way for letter writers to check their work, and a more objective way for those soliciting letters to ask their letter writers to edit or modify their letters (or, preemptively, ask them to run the letter through this before submitting it). I haven’t used it myself yet though.

  10. Pingback: Choosing and Chosen For – The Dumpling Cart

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