Gendered adjectives: do you want to be described as hard-working?

University staff may often write letters of recommendation in a very gendered way, warns Dame Athene Donald

December 2, 2016
Illustration of six stickmen each representing different character traits such as
Source: iStock
Is the adjective that you’ve chosen to describe someone perceived as gendered? There is a now a website where you can cut and paste your reference letter and find out

I visited Oxford this week to talk to the Women in Physics group, mainly made up of students and postdocs (not all of whom were women). Tea and excellent scones were provided to stimulate good discussion.

I was duly grilled as the voice of experience and asked to provide advice about career progression and setbacks. I want to highlight one particular question that was raised by a student looking to apply for fellowships and needing letters of reference to be written on their behalf. Should she, she asked, point out to her supervisor that a letter that said she was a good team player might be of limited use.

What she was getting at was the fact that people can, often without deliberate intent, write such letters in a very gendered way. A few years ago this seemed little appreciated. People “knew” what the sterling values for a woman should be – being conscientious, kind, helpful, a good team player or hard-working might all have been regarded as praise.

But it was praise of a kind that does not necessarily imply high performance in a laboratory let alone in a new research fellow. The words that are required to land such a position are more likely to involve qualities such as drive, potential, creativity, imagination, excellence and to be regarded as outstanding, stellar or “top of the class”.

So, if letter writers just sit down and write the first adjectives that come into their heads to describe men and women, the words may be poles apart even if the subjects of the letters are indistinguishable in ability. Clearly, this can lead to significant detriment to the woman’s progression even if without a sexist intent.

As with so many of the different strands that make up unconscious bias, making the bias conscious so that the letter writer pauses, pen metaphorically in the air, may make all the difference. Do you really mean that your star female PhD student is hard-working and conscientious – or was the message that you wanted to convey in fact that she was outstanding, goes the extra mile and always exceeds your expectations about what is possible, demonstrating great originality en route? There is an enormous difference in the impact of the two descriptions.

For the supervisor whose pen is now aloft but frozen in their hand as they realise they haven’t a clue how to tackle this letter-writing business which is turning out a lot more challenging than they’d anticipated, help is at hand.

When I first wrote about this issue back in 2012, citing a 2009 study by J. Madera, M. Hebl and R. Martin in the Journal of Applied Psychology, the topic had not yet received a great deal of attention. However, now you can, for instance, write your letter of reference and pass it through a website that will highlight words that may be perceived as gendered.

You will soon be able to tell quite how many words of dubious worth you’ve included. Hence, you can deduce whether the description is what you intended or something far from it. After all, some of us some of the time may feel the kindest thing that we can say about the dunce in the group (whatever their gender) is that they are hard-working, in which case well and good. Sometimes being a team player may be an absolutely crucial skill for a particular role, in which case go for it.

There are style-writing guides amplifying the basic points that I am making here. For generic jobs, you might want to look here; or a similar set of advice addressed specifically to scientists, indeed astronomers, here. Whereas a few years ago a Google search for “gendered letters of reference” threw up very little, now it will produce multiple hits. This is progress, of sorts.

However, to come back to the original question, there is an additional element implied in the question. The student was applying now for fellowships. Would it be tactful now to raise this topic – or was it actually too late?

I consider it might turn out to be distinctly awkward to stand over the supervisor, who is about to draft your letter of reference, pointing out that what they write shouldn’t be gendered and asking them if it could please include lots of superlatives. It could be seen as pretty pushy if not downright offensive! Maybe this is something that in general the concerned student should slip into a discussion weeks/months in advance; perhaps it could be brought up in a journal club debate or an Athena SWAN workshop.

Departments could also circulate information annually to their staff to remind them of the possibility of double standards in adjectives and nouns peppering references. There are plenty of sites now putting out information covering this topic, so it isn’t necessary for every department to reinvent this particular wheel, even if it may still be necessary for each and every one actively to promote this information.

For the reader of such letters of reference, it is important to know when someone is described as hard-working because that’s the kindest thing that anyone can say, and when the writer actually meant to convey an extremely positive impression but is unaware that their description is gendered and liable to be read in a very different way. The more this issue is discussed explicitly, the less women will be unintentionally disadvantaged.

Dame Athene Donald is professor of experimental physics at the University of Cambridge, and master of Churchill College, Cambridge. This post originally appeared on her blog.

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