Men should not become the explicit standard in reference-writing

Tackling bias by urging writers to avoid stereotypically female descriptors undervalues qualities such as cooperation and care, says Davina Cooper

October 20, 2020
A man types on a computer
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Some months back, I received an email asking me for an academic reference. With it came a request that, in writing the reference, I pay attention to my unconscious gender bias and try to limit it.

I am glad that universities are responding to the disparities in the kinds of recommendation letters that men and women routinely receive (disparities that can also be exacerbated by racial and class assumptions). I’ve read recommendation letters over many years – for promotions, fellowships, grants and academic jobs – and several differences stand out.

For instance, as research also confirms, men are more likely to get references describing them as brilliant or outstanding and ranking them among the top people in their field. Their references also tend to be longer and engage with their scholarship rather than centring on their personal characteristics.

The reference guidance I was given made several suggestions. Stereotypically female adjectives such as “kind”, “compassionate”, “caring” and “warm” should be avoided. Instead, “standout” adjectives should be used, such as “superb”, “ambitious”, “confident” and “successful”. Equivocal, conditional terms should be replaced with assertive ones and first names replaced with a title and surname.

Advice like this is common as the characteristics associated with women are problematised. Writing in Harvard Business Review in 2018, American researchers suggested that “one of the most important things we can do is…be vigilant about our own use and interpretation of certain words that we might unintentionally use to describe women versus men. If you are a woman, does a quick look at your own résumé reveal an excess use of communal descriptors” such as “sensitive”, “caring” and “kind”?

And the advice to men?

Men, it seems, don’t need to change. It is for women to own (and find a home in) men’s descriptive language of independence, strength, competition and ambition.

Today, even my email auto-advice prompts me to replace tentative or hesitant prose so I can sound more certain and have greater impact. But sometimes conditional, hesitant, contextualised ways of speaking are appropriate – recognising when we are not sure or not fully decided about something. Such nuance is something I want to see in those who govern us (not least in the middle of a new crisis). They are also valuable qualities in our academic community.

I would far rather have colleagues who are caring, compassionate and kind than ambitious, competitive and confident when the manifestation of those latter qualities comes at the expense of other people. Innovating intellectually, running a department and educating students are collaborative activities that, to be done well, require a great deal of care and kindness towards others.

Pursuing gender equality by demanding “standout” terms also ignores decades of feminist work on the value of cooperation and care. For instance, Jennifer Nedelsky and others’ work on “relational autonomy” richly demonstrates how autonomy emerges in relationships; people exist in networks and a capacity to act depends on the contribution that others make.

To be fair, relational adjectives are not completely discouraged in the reference-writing guidance I received. Men can be described in such terms. It is only women who should not be. I am reminded of Lisa Adkins and others’ work on gendered labour. Both men and women are regarded by employers as capable of doing work that requires care and emotional sensitivity. But when women do it, their performance is dismissed or undervalued – they are just doing what women naturally do.

Men’s emotional labour and care work, by contrast, stands out as skilful. Consequently, men can depict kindness as part of their occupational repertoire in terms that women cannot.

The importance attached to professional capital also surfaces in the reference-writing guidance on using academic titles. Discussions on social media underline the unfairness of referring to a woman by her first name in contexts where a man would be called doctor or professor. Moreover, references that repeatedly use a first name may also keep reminding the decision-making panel of an applicant’s gender.

Yet referring to someone only by their title and surname can encourage the panel to see them less as a person than as a holder of professional capital. Their place in the hierarchical order is defined by their title, just as their place within ethnic, class-based and geopolitical structures may be made known through the repeated use of their surname.

Appointments, promotions and research funding awards operate in conditions of scarcity. The challenge of how to allocate their benefits, or restructure their systems, exceeds by a long way the problem of letter-writing bias. Still, the latter is important. However, in trying to overcome the inequities in what gets written, it is essential not to overlook the question of what should count as valuable in academic life.

Davina Cooper is research professor in law and political theory at King’s College London. This is an edited version of an article that first appeared on her blog, Social Politics and Stuff.

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