The Power of Words (in references)

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Does gender unintentionally affect reference writing, and how much affect does that have upon careers?

The 2009 work to which I am referring (by J. Madera, M. Hebl and R. Martin in the Journal of Applied Psychology) considered letters of reference written for academics, looking at common adjectives used to describe men and women, and explored how these letters – and the words used – affected the actual hiring decisions. In general, women were more likely to be described by rather passive and emotive words (described in the original paper as “communal” adjectives) such as affectionate, tactful, sensitive and helpful. These are words that may indeed correctly describe any individual, they are not negative words, but they may not be seen as central to the job an academic does. In contrast, men were more likely to be described by so-called “agentic” words – words that stress the active sense of doing, rather than merely being, and words that might be correlated with strength. Adjectives that fit into this category include assertive, dominant, ambitious and intellectual. These words convey a sense of mastery over a field, not a predilection to nurture someone else. The reported analysis demonstrated that the use of these agentic words did not appear to have a significant effect on hiring decisions, but the presence of communal words did. In other words, describing women with stereotypical female words disadvantaged the women. Interestingly, female referees were more likely to use these unhelpful, stereotypical words about women than male writers. One can speculate why this might be, but the concern is that – almost certainly unconsciously and unintentionally – many letters of reference contain words that are damaging to a woman’s case, and hence to her future career.

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