I Hate the Standard Advice on Word Choice in Recommendation Letters

So if you’re an academic and have written or read recommendation letters for your students and care at all about gender equality in academia, you’ve probably come across this handy poster:


Most of this advice is pretty nuanced and thought-provoking, and will get most of us to write better, more balanced letters for all our students. But I cannot express how angry I get every time I see the section titled “Stay away from stereotypes”, in which it is suggested that letter writers stay away from using adjectives like “caring”, “compassionate”, and “helpful” in letters for women, because these sorts of words “are used more frequently in letters for women and can evoke gender stereotypes which can hurt a candidate.” A more detailed list below expands this list of words to avoid, including “tactful”, “dependable”, and “diligent”. The words that the poster recommends that letter writers retain include “ambitious”, “confident”, and “intellectual.”

You’ll notice right away that the words in the two lists are not at all equivalent. It’s not like the words to avoid are slightly less impactful versions of the words to include. The two lists of adjectives tell us fundamentally different things about a person, and words we’re being told to avoid actually describe traits that I hope we all want in our colleagues. These two sets of adjectives are far from mutually exclusive, but if they were, I know I’d choose to work with someone who is hard-working and compassionate over someone who is ambitious and successful. The colleagues I most enjoy working with, regardless of their gender, embody the best of both lists.

So what this poster is effectively, and not even subtly, telling us is that we should avoid using words that provide useful information simply because they are coded as female. Like so many other purported solutions to gender bias, this advice furthers patriarchal values instead of subverting them. If we follow the advice in this poster, and then turn around to complain that academia is full of tactless, uncaring, and selfish people, we are being hypocrites.

But the poster also points the way forward. Turns out that recommendation letters for men are 16% longer than letters for women. So use that extra space to fully describe your female students who are both hard-working and accomplished as such, and cut out some instances of “excellent” and “intellectual” to do the same for your male students. It’s then up to the search committees to decide what they value in their colleagues. If these search committees would rather hire someone who is “excellent” over someone who is “excellent” AND “hardworking”, the problem lies there, and not in the letters of recommendation.

[2019 Update: what about adding text like this to all of your letters?]


4 thoughts on “I Hate the Standard Advice on Word Choice in Recommendation Letters

  1. So true! In theory, we presumably want a diverse academia but, in practice we are willing to hire candidate that would present only a pre-determined ensemble of qualities… where ambition and success are valuable and hardworking or helpful are not really.

    Maybe those less-valuable qualities are mostly feminine… or maybe not because I can also suppose that men that would have those characteristics would also not be selected.

    Whatever, if we really want a diverse academia, we also have to diversify our criteria when we want to hire someone. If not, I would continue to think that to work in academia, not only we have to be ambitious or excellent but to be hypocrite is also a good quality to have.

  2. Freakonomics recently re-released an episode on productivity which included an interview with Charles Duhigg who wrote a book on productivity. He looked at multiple studies, including a large one at Google, and came up with a list of practices needed for productive teams. Duhigg says “what matters isn’t who is on the team. What matters is how the team interacts.”

    The practice/necessity that really stuck with me was that productive team members had a sense of “psychological safety.” This included things like the ability to speak up about projects without fear of ridicule, knowing a bit about your teammate’s personal life, ensuring teammates felt included, etc.

    To tie it back to your post, I think that the practices often coded as feminine and therefore not “useful” in letters actually feed into this idea of psychological safety, which is paramount when working with other people. Instead of ignoring these traits, we should appreciate them, because they’re actually really valuable, as you mention.

    Here’s the link to the podcast transcript: http://freakonomics.com/podcast/how-to-be-more-productive/

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