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Thursday, December 9, 2010

Study Finds Sexism In Recommendation Letters

Brad Steele, right, interviews with Betsy Harris, left, of Express Employment Professionals at a National CareerFair, in Cincinnati, Ohio. (AP)

Brad Steele, right, interviews with Betsy Harris, left, of Express Employment Professionals at a National CareerFair, in Cincinnati, Ohio. (AP)

Is word choice in recommendation letters hurting women’s chances for getting jobs? A recent study finds that people writing these letters often describe men with different words than women.

Adjectives like “assertive,” “ambitious,”  and “confident” are used to describe men; while women are more likely to be characterized as “sensitive,” “kind”and “nurturing.”

Rice University psychology professor and study author, Mikki Hebl, says that these seemingly innocuous distinctions could be preventing women from getting jobs.  The research was supported by the National Science Foundation and published in the Journal of Applied Psychology.


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  • Kai

    Could it be that companies simply want people who are “agentic,” regardless of male or female? It seems to me that all the researchers are doing is pointing out that companies are not hiring people who are described with communal adjectives. But because it’s mostly women who are described that way, companies are being sexist. Companies want to make a profit first, not be communal. Perhaps the problem is women are being too communal and aren’t making an effort to be more agentic while at the University. When people write recommendations they can only write what they know. So why not just tell women to be more agentic instead of blaming companies for being “sexist”? Companies do build a community-like atmosphere with the people who work there. But companies aren’t trying to hire people to build that atmosphere but to do a job. Community comes second.

  • Andrea

    I’ll tell you why women aren’t more “agentic.” Because if we’re assertive or ambitious we are perceived as cold and bitchy i.e. not “normal” and therefore suspect. We can’t win if we “act like women” and we can’t win if we “act like men.” Better to just interview the most qualified candidates based on education and experience.

    The best thing that could happen for women is to see more and more female role models and women in our culture acting assertive and ambitious and being praised (not criticized) for it their behavior.

  • Stephen Judd

    I teach a senior Capstone course in which my students write recommendations for one another. In my experience,the less confident the writer is of observable competencies of her/his subject, the more tendency there is to rely on “communal” qualities as a strategy that allows the writer to construct something positive about the subject. This also seems to hold true in my classes when students discuss one another’s work and performance. In fact, it often feels as though students are looking for a way to avoid acknowleging marginal performances among their peers. It may also reflect their own inability to determine competence in agentic areas. This is something that one can expect of students, but as someone who has also done quite a bit of hiring in both academic and professional theatre (both areas in which communal attributes are highly prized) I tend to be very suspicious of a recommendation that begins with strong assertions of powerful interpersonal skills as the primary focus. My own experience leads me to believe that such a recommendation almost always means that the critical the evaluation of other areas of performance are delibertely being deemphasized by the writer. Does bias continue to exist in the workplace? Of course – but so does the hesitation to give an honest and complete recommendation of measurable skills.

  • Weed Yaard

    Even deeper than the gender issues involved in the question of “agentic” versus “communal” qualities in the workplace are questions that have to do with the values our individualistic culture valorizes, and why.

    The origins of the Judeo-Christian tradition can be readily and accurately traced back and back and back to ancient (ca. 3000 BCE) raiding and territorial conquest following the Indo-European and Semitic tribal breakouts, and the military aristocracies built upon the backs of conquered peoples in which we find these tribal lifeways writ large. Our secular and religious mythology is full of stories of conquerors, and to this day, agentic qualities are elevated as ethical values above nearly every other quality.

    To take–the act of taking–in our cultural mythology is to act according to virtue. (Of course, this is somewhat mitigated by loose and variable notions of fair play, but as we’ve seen over the past handful of years with the Banking Swindle, these are readily overpowered.) We do it–this taking–all the time, and in most instances, it is not questioned at all: What is the entire enterprise of unquestioned resource extraction (no matter the cost to habitats, creatures and peoples living nearby) besides socially endorsed taking? (Even here, in the the audio segment presented today we heard nothing said to question the taking mentality that underpins the entire agentic vs. communal dichotomy.)

    THE key change–vital to our continuation, rather than our extinction as a species over the next century or two–must be a strong, diversely articulated, communally sponsored movement away from the very mythology of brigandage that valorizes agentic qualities over communal qualities.

    A different human is required than the western human. Ironically, even as some of us discover many good reasons to question our social and cultural mythology of individualism, others of us are doing all they can to export this mythology to the rest of the world.

  • http://www.aresumefortoday.com Jean Cummings

    Loved what Weed had to say about this issue. Another point that hasn’t been mentioned is that it turns out that work get done better if the leader has strong “communal” skills – the Lone Ranger isn’t the successful executive after all, despite the mythology around that and the words used to describe leaders. In fact, in a Harvard Business School article, it was reported that a study found that having a high “emotional IQ” is a better predictor of CEO success than high IQ.

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