Letters of recommendation written for women may contain certain words or phrases that can be perceived as casting doubt on the woman it is supposed to be recommending, according to a recent study.
And these phrases, or "doubt raisers," are more likely to be discovered in a woman's letter of recommendation than a man's, according to the study conducted by Rice University, the University of Houston, and CUNY.
“Though they may vary in the degree of negativity and subtleness," the researchers wrote, "They all potentially raise doubts for the evaluator because they indicate that the writer is uncertain about the applicant, or does not have an entirely positive impression of the applicant."
Doubt raisers can include negativity (i.e. pointing out a weakness of the subject), hedging ("she may not be the best"), faint praise ("the candidate is mostly able to follow instructions properly"), or irrelevant information, according to the researchers.
“We’re seeing a lot of overt types of discrimination on the rise, and I think we also shouldn’t forget that there are subtle forms as well,” Mikki Hebl, co-author of the study and psychologist at Rice, told Moneyish. “Some of our research suggests that the subtle forms can be just as pernicious as the overt forms.”
Other examples of doubt raisers, according to Hebl, include "might make a good colleague," "has the potential to be successful,” and “despite the fact that she had a lot of difficulty getting there, she’s pretty good,” Hebl said.
The researchers studied both letters of recommendation for women and for men. The letters written for women included more doubt raisers — negativity, faint praise, and hedges — than those written for men.
The researchers then conducted a second study in which, using a sample of university professors, they discovered that using doubt raisers like negativity and hedging in a letter of recommendation lowered the applicant's evaluations, regardless of gender.
While doubt raisers were found in letters of recommendation for both women and men, they were discovered more often in those for women.
“Taken together, the key contribution of these studies is the clear illustration that doubt raisers in letters of recommendation do indeed hurt women more than men," the study reads. "But only because doubt raisers are more frequent in letters for women.”
In order to solve this letter of recommendation bias, Hebl said that those who write regular letters of recommendation should review past letters they have drafted and search for doubt raisers, hopefully creating an awareness that will be applied when writing letters of recommendation in the future.
By becoming aware of these subtle biases, said biases can be addressed and eliminated. Hebl also issued a warning regarding the adjectives chosen to describe women. Rather than using caring words like "sensitive," use words to convey power and control like "strong."
“In the contest between being liked and being respected, you always want to be respected,” Hebl told Moneyish. “So for me, it’s about making sure that my letters of recommendation that I write for women are about conveying messages that they should be respected.”
Hebl also recommended that those requesting the letter from a superior give the superior a list of their professional accomplishments that they wish to be highlighted in the letter.
“I like to put some of the burden of that on the person for whom the letter’s written,” she said, “because then it assures them that they are articulating the things that are most agentic about themselves.”