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.)