Can “Word Choices” Compromise a Woman’s Career?

A letter of recommendation can catapult a woman into the next phase of the interview process for a particular job – or land her in the slush pile. Word choice in describing this female candidate can make or break her career. Take this scenario: there is an opening for a faculty position at a given university. The applicant pool is impressive. The competition gets stiff. And then, it’s down to two possible candidates – a man and a woman are vying for the same position. They have the same qualifications, similar educational background and work experience, number of published works, number of honors and number of courses taught.

What can tip the scale in favor of one or the other when it comes to hiring in academia? Letters of recommendation can tip that scale, especially when a reference’s word choice paints a negative, less than stellar picture of the candidate. Qualities mentioned in recommendation letters for women differ sharply from those for men, and those differences are costing women jobs and promotions in academia and medicine and, most likely, in facets of the business community.

“The seemingly innocuous word choices can be damaging to any applicant, despite his or her skills,” says Dr. Michelle “Mikki” Hebl, professor of applied psychology and management at Rice University.

With a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant, Hebl worked with colleague Dr. Randi Martin, the Elma Schneider Professor of Psychology at Rice, and graduate student Juan Madera (now assistant professor at the University of Houston) in a study analyzing more than 600 letters of recommendation for 194 applicants for eight junior faculty positions at a U.S. university. Their findings appear in Gender and Letters of Recommendation for Academia: Agentic and Communal Differences, published in 2010. The findings were surprising and disturbing, says Hebl. They pointed to the fact that the words used to describe women in letters of recommendation differ greatly from the words used to describe men – and this can affect their careers.

Michelle "Mikki" Hebl

In everyday life, the words nurturing, inclusive, helpful, affectionate, kind, sympathetic, tactful and agreeable are pretty positive; however, they are known as “communal” (social or emotive) words and have historically, stereotypically described women and feminine characteristics. By contrast, words like leader, assertive, confident, intellectual, ambitious, dominant, forceful, independent and outspoken are known as “agentic” (active/assertive) words and have typically described men in the past.

“We found that communal is not valued in academia, but we weren’t so surprised with those terms,” said Martin. “We were surprised when we evaluated the negative correlation between communal terms that lowered the evaluation of the recommendation letter. The more communal characteristics mentioned, the lower the evaluation of the candidate.”

Martin, along with Dr. Suparna Rajaram (State University of New York-Stony Brook) and Dr. Judith Kroll (Pennsylvania State University) received an NSF ADVANCE Leadership award for 2003-20 to support the efforts of the Women in Cognitive Science (WICS) group and promote women in the field. Hebl’s background with gender and various other types of discrimination highlighted their efforts in how women can be discriminated against in the most subtle ways as they climb their own versions of the corporate ladder.

This study had also been the first to show that gender differences in letters actually affect judgments of “hireability.” A candidate chooses references she believes will write a positive picture of her and sell her talents, skills, capabilities and leadership qualifications. Often, however, “strong” words are associated with men – which gives women a disadvantage even before they can get past the slush pile and in for an interview. “There is nothing derogatory about these words, but they are not helpful to women in this fashion,” says Martin.

In the study, the research team removed names and personal pronouns from the letters and asked faculty members from other universities to evaluate how strong the letters were. They took in to account the number of years in graduate school, numbers of papers published, number of publications on which they were lead authors, number of honors received, number of years of postdoctoral education, the position applied for and the number of courses taught. They found that letters of recommendation for men were longer. Despite their qualifications, word choice in recommendation letters greatly influenced hirability ratings.

Raising Awareness

Letter writers might just not be aware of their biases, especially when it comes to word choices. “It’s a matter of awareness,” says Hebl. “This is a case where people are not aware of what they are doing with something that is seemingly small, as in word choice, but can have profound effects. We have to raise awareness.”

A letter writer – no matter what the gender – is just not aware that he or she is discriminating. If a letter writer asks himself: how do I describe this woman, what pops into his head might be traditionally stereotypical words. Those words become more salient. “All words have stereotypes historically,” says Hebl. “Women have been seen as caring, nurturing and inclusive; men as independent, assertive, strong.”

In addition, women were described with what Hebl calls “doubt raiser” words, as well, such as “has the potential to be a good leader” or “might be a good leader,” which can raise the question of whether a woman might or might not be a good addition for that faculty. The man, on the other hand, is described as a leader in phrases such as “He is already an established leader.”

The gender-specific words and differences in letters of recommendation can cost an applicant a job, a promotion or a foot in the door for top-tier positions. This study did not break down the applicant pool by ethnic categories, but Hebl realizes that being Hispanic can add more flame to the fire as the U.S. Hispanic population evolves. “We know that the landscape of people who are earning degrees is changing. The White population is growing smaller while the Hispanic population is increasing dramatically. It is critical that they’re placed in higher positions in academia, business and other careers to reflect our changing society.”

There is a call to education for Hispanics, explains Hebl, because the boom in the Hispanic population is still offset by it being the lowest in attaining higher education degrees. Once they have degrees in hand, they too will be applying for these decision-making positions. They must be made aware of the subtle biases in letters of recommendation, too.

“There is a leaky pipeline for women to be considered for positions in academia, but add being Hispanic to that gender bias. What kind of letters of recommendation can result?” Hebl’s background is in diversity and discrimination, which includes ethnic minorities, women, older people, gender, obesity, sexual orientation. “For all of these, there are laws to protect them against blatant discrimination,” says Hebl. There is zero tolerance and laws to protect citizens and social desirability that can be worked into a given situation.

“Much of that type of discrimination has been extinguished,” she says. “That which hasn’t been extinguished is interpersonal interactions.”

These micro-inequities are often more subtle and might seem innocuous, but are not innocuous at all, says Hebl. And are rampant in letter of recommendation when it comes to word choice. What is the landscape for minorities? Are they marginalized? Are they seen as less intelligent and less educated as a whole? One amplification builds on existing stereotypes. An interviewer might not see the Hispanic applicant as brilliant, but might say, ‘for a Hispanic, this applicant is smart.’ Stereotypes that can apply to Hispanic women are a double whammy of gender and ethnic discrimination.

Micro-inequities can be worse than formal discrimination. “Someone can say, ‘I will not hire a woman,’ and that is openly discriminatory,” says Hebl. “From the eyes of a female applicant, cognitive effort is needed to determine whether that person is always rude or ‘just rude to me because I’m a woman.’ Word choice can make you feel comfortable, like you’re going into a situation with a best friend – or stepping into fire with your worst enemy.”

If a woman does not know why she was passed over for a job when she was just as qualified as a male counterpart, word choices might be the culprit.

Interestingly, both men and women letter writers often are guilty of using communal words versus agentic words as they describe certain types of applicants. What was found is that even when men are described with communal words for stereotypical female jobs such as nurse, teacher or social worker, they, too, are overlooked. “Most are unaware of how this word choice can affect the evaluation of an applicant,” says Martin. She recommends that references truly think about their word choices in letters of recommendation. “How appropriate is this word in regard to employment? Are you describing the intellectual caliber of the applicant? Think twice before writing that letter.”

Be a Proactive Applicant

Being biased in writing letters of recommendation might not be intentional; sometimes it might just be a lack of awareness by a letter writer. They don’t write these marginal letters of recommendation as part of a hidden agenda.

“They are simply not aware of their biases in something as simple as word choice.”

“Pick people to write your letters who are supportive of you, people you trust,” says Hebl.

An applicant can give letter writers the material he or she wants to accentuate. Give them a list with your own choice words, letting them know that those are the qualities you would like them to stress if at all possible, suggests Hebl. Keep in mind what the criteria are for the job and what the most important aspect is of the academic position for which they are applying. Agentic qualities could include: can run a lab, has leadership qualities in a team scenario, makes informed decisions. Be aware of historically stereotypical “female” roles. For example, caring, sensitive, kind and nurturing are good for a nurse, but “makes good decisions under pressure” is better. What are the qualifications in terms of ability to do the job? Teaching, awards and published credits should be taken into account, as well as the letters.

Hebl and Martin continue to gather data for their next tier of analysis of letters of recommendation. They will focus on medical school faculty, which will provide a bigger sample of applicant letters.

Look at letters of recommendation in terms of decision making, says Martin. They have the power to make or break careers, garner promotions and recognize talent. Word choice can sway people to believe one perspective versus another.

“There is this social commentary many of us are not aware of,” says Martin. “I hope what people get out of this is the need to think about the subtle differences in gender expectations and how words can affect those expectations.”