Hard road for soft skills

January 19, 2012

Athene Donald's article on the damage that can be done to women's academic careers by job references that include adjectives such as "affectionate, tactful, sensitive, helpful" and the like - qualities that are regarded as essentially female but are not valued by hiring committees - was informative ("A careless reference can do more damage than sticks and stones", 12 January).

In case we felt in any doubt that such gender differences existed, in the same issue of Times Higher Education, researchers suggested that they are in fact so pronounced that there should be segregation of male and female students - presumably so that the "affectionate" and "sensitive" females won't be damaged by "insensitive" and "rough" males ("Keep Mars and Venus apart for learning's sake", 12 January).

Ironically though, the very "feminine" qualities that are supposed to be shunned by selection panels - the so-called "soft skills" of empathy, persuasiveness and the ability to work collaboratively - are those that any number of management writers claim are required by contemporary organisations. It seems to be a double whammy that these skills are increasingly needed, yet increasingly ruled out by those who make the hiring decisions in the academy (often men).

Maybe some joined-up thinking is required: which gender scores highly in that regard, I wonder?

Mary Brown, Freelance education consultant, Banchory, Scotland

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