A Linguistic Comparison of Letters of Recommendation for Male and Female Chemistry and Biochemistry Job Applicants

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Letters of recommendation are central to the hiring process. However, gender stereotypes could bias how recommenders describe female compared to male applicants. In the current study, text analysis software was used to examine 886 letters of recommendation written on behalf of 235 male and 42 female applicants for either a chemistry or biochemistry faculty position at a large U.S. research university.Overall, the results of the current study revealed more similarity in the letters written for male and female job candidates than differences. Male and female candidates had similar levels of qualifications and this was reflected in their letters of recommendation. Letters written for women included language that was just as positive and placed equivalent emphasis on ability, achievement, and research. letters for female candidates to jobs in chemistry and biochemistry did not contain significantly more tentative language and did not overemphasize teaching and hard work over research and ability. However, it is notable that recommenders used significantly more standout adjectives to describe male candidates as compared to female candidates, even though objective criteria showed no gender differences in qualifications. It is likely that evaluators place higher weight on letters that describe a candidate as the most gifted, best qualified, or a rising star. This could mean that even a small difference in the proportion of standout adjectives used in describing female candidates could translate into much larger evaluative effects. Interestingly, the data also revealed that letters that contained more standout words also included more ability related terms and fewer grindstone words. Even though no sex differences were found in these latter categories, the use of standout adjectives in combination with ability language could also have the effect of amplifying the weight that search committees place on ability when evaluating a given application. More research is needed to understand how these seemingly small differences in language use affect the overall evaluations made by social perceivers.

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doi: 10.1007/s11199-007-9291-4
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