Monday, August 17, 2009

Recommendation Letters

A few years ago I read a NY Times article that has stuck in my mind. I'm not sure if I found the same article, but I did find two that had similar points to make. Here are the relevant sections:

Women in Science: The Battle Moves to the Trenches

Dr. Steitz cited a study of letters of recommendation written for men and women seeking academic appointments. Though all the applicants were successful, she said, and though the letters were written by men and women, the study found that the applicant’s personal life was mentioned six times more often if the letter was about a woman.

Also, Dr. Steitz said, “For women, the things that were talked about more frequently were how well they were trained, what good teachers they were and how well their applications were put together.” When the subject of the letter was male, she said, the big topics were research skills and success in the lab.

For Women in Sciences, Slow Progress in Academia

Mel Hochster, a mathematics professor at Michigan, belongs to a committee of senior science professors that gives workshops for heads of departments and search committees highlighting the findings of numerous studies on sex bias in hiring. For example, men are given longer letters of recommendation than women, and their letters are more focused on relevant credentials. Men and women are more likely to vote to hire a male job applicant than a woman with an identical record. Women applying for a postdoctoral fellowship had to be 2.5 times as productive to receive the same competence score as the average male applicant. When orchestras hold blind auditions, in which they cannot see the musician, 30 percent to 55 percent more women are hired.

It's the letter writing bias that I'm interested in here. I haven't found any research to back this up, but I believe that letter writing also shows unconscious racial bias as well as gender bias. For example, letters for my Latino friends emphasize that they're "laid-back" and easy to get along with instead of emphasizing their intelligence, research success, etc. While being easy to get along with is certainly a good trait, perhaps even one that belongs in one paragraph at the end of a letter, it should never be the focus of a recommendation letter - it should not be emphasized over the research accomplishments of the applicant. Letter writers often hold back women and minority applicants by their, often unintentional, lack of emphasis of the skills necessary for the job.

Yet it's so easy to fix! After all, a recommendation letter need not be subject to societal biases - there are many chances to read it over to correct for these, and the writer may try anew for each new letter. And so, as I prepare to enter the job market, I encourage all of you who may be writing letters (for me or anyone else) to examine your letters through this lens, and make sure you're expressing an appropriate evaluation.


Anonymous said...

How come you have read your friends recommendation letters?

sorelle said...

I haven't, but they have and have told me about them.

Anonymous said...

I think letters that say something about the person are more useful than letters that only talk about the research. But I am in a small field (theoretical computer science), so I generally know about the research already, if not about specific contributions to collaborative research. Biology is ten-thousand times bigger. I also think that there are so few women in computer science that female applicants automatically get much more attention. Again, biology is very different.

Do you know of any studies that compare this across fields? I think we could be learning the wrong lessons here.