Letters of Recommendation for Women More Likely to Raise Doubt of Their Competence

Letters of recommendation written for women are more likely to contain words or phrases that raise doubts about job or education qualifications than letters written for men, according to a new study led by researchers at Rice University and the University of Houston.

The study revealed that, on average, letters written for women were more likely to contain a doubt-raiser than letters written for men (regardless of whether a man or a woman wrote the letter). The researchers defined “doubt-raisers” as phrases or statements that question an applicant’s aptness for a job. This language falls into four categories: negativity (directly saying something bad), faint praise (indirect criticism of someone or something by giving a slight compliment), hedges (cautious or vague language) and irrelevant information (going off in a direction unrelated to the job description). Examples of doubt-raisers are statements like “the candidate has a somewhat challenging personality” or “she might be a good leader in the future.”

Mikki Hebl, the Martha and Henry Malcolm Lovett Professor of Psychology at Rice University and a co-author of the study, stated that “I would suggest avoiding these types of phrases in recommendations if you are trying to write a strong letter and to be aware that they might be more likely to unintentionally slip into letters for women than men.”

Professor Hebl is a graduate of Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts. She holds a master’s degree in psychology from Texas A&M University and a Ph.D. in psychology from Dartmouth College.

The full study, “Raising Doubt in Letters of Recommendation for Academia: Gender Differences and Their Impact,” was published on the website of the Journal of Business and Psychology. It may be accessed here.

Filed Under: Research/Study


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