The Power of Adjectives

Academics tend to be open-minded people and understand how unproductive stereotypes can be. Despite this tolerance, hidden bias creeps in.

Take letters of recommendation. This time of year faculty receive requests to write on behalf of students applying to graduate school, trainees applying to faculty positions, and colleagues applying for fellowships. There’s a conventional format for these letters, which are uniformly positive.

Yet, in a study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, researchers found that letters of recommendation for junior faculty positions at a research university showed a distinct pattern. Letters for female candidates stressed their “supportive” and “compassionate” qualities. Letters for male candidates characterized them as “confident” and “ambitious.”

Both kinds of adjectives have a place in academia, but when search committees reviewed the letters, they rated the male attributes more highly. Without intending to, letter writers may be disadvantaging female candidates. The NIH is now funding a study to see if this pattern holds true in medical schools.

Inside Higher Ed’s  report on this research generated over two dozen comments. The study’s authors say a candidate can show the research to potential recommenders to make them aware of hidden bias. Of course, as some readers pointed out, another solution is to educate search committees to value the communal qualities associated with women. Because when it comes to obtaining leadership roles, being known as “caring” and “nurturing” won’t help a candidate.

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