Gender Bias in Reference Letters

If you plan to request reference letters in the effort to apply for graduate schools, scholarships, awards, or fellowships now or in the future, or someone who writes referral on behalf of others, please keep reading. Too often, those writing referrals will employ gender-biased language that can work against an applicant. Whether done intentionally or not, referral letters must go through a proofreading process both by the writer and candidate to ensure that gender-biased language is used, as it can hurt the person’s chances of obtaining their goals.

When it comes to referral letters, those written for women are 2.5x more likely to include less assuring language and 7x more likely to mention the candidate’s personal life (Trix & Pensa 214). A candidate’s personal life rarely has relevance to their position. Also, using language like “they can do the job” does not sound as endearing as “they are the best candidate for the position”. Men’s reference letters will more likely include specific accomplishments in their career or research. Meanwhile, women’s reference letters will use weak adjectives like “compassionate” that only refer to effort and not a candidate’s ability (Trix & Pensa 207). Finally, when writing letters for hopeful applicants, avoid stereotypes on every front. That means gender bias evoking terminology like describing women as “sympathetic” or by casting doubt by writing things like, “I believe she will achieve above-average success”. These types of and phrases do not help an applicant and yet pop up in women’s reference letters twice as likely (Trix & Pensa 217). 

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If you write reference letters for students or employees, or will one day, make it a priority to proofread your diction and the details you include to ensure that you:

  • Do not mention a candidate’s personal life
  • Address the specific achievements of the candidate
  • Do no reinforce stereotypes
  • Do not cast doubt in the candidate’s possible employer or school

By ensuring your referral letters reflect these do’s and don’ts, you both provide a standout, well-rounded reference letter for the candidate and also help break gender bias in this area altogether. Gender bias can appear in reference letters of both men and women but statistically appears higher in those of women. So, if you identify as a female and see that your reference letters include some of the previously mentioned issues, do not hesitate to (politely) bring it to the attention of who wrote it. By doing this, you will hopefully end up with a better referral letter that will help you achieve your dreams and bring awareness to a significant issue in the professional industry!

 

 

 

Trix, F., & Psenka C. (2003). Exploring the color of glass: letters of recommendation for female and male medical faculty. Discourse and Society, 14, 191–220