equity · faculty evaluation · grad school · women

"Dear Committee …"

Dear [admissions / hiring / scholarship / fellowship / internship] committee. I am writing to you to support [student / colleague / supervisee / former student / prospective student]’s application …

How many of these letters have you had written on your behalf? How many have you written for others? How many have you read, as a member of the ‘dear committee’ in question? Letters of recommendation pervade academic culture, and the world outside it. So take a minute, and go and read this: “Reference Letters Cost Women Jobs” at Futurity.org. Go. Then come back. (Thank you to reader Heidi for bringing this to our attention, btw.)

Are you agog? I am.

Reference letters are hard. They’re hard to write and hard to read. They are consequential, and treated with some reverence and a lot of formality. A reference letter is held in strictest confidence, on the understanding that the letter writer is speaking some hard or secret truth to a committee of whatever sort, a truth whose utterance can only be assured by this guarantee of confidence. A graduate admissions committee is committing to support, say, an incoming PhD student for a minimum of four years: we want to know what we’re getting into! A hiring committee is looking to make a huge commitment to a potential colleague–we hope a reference letter will help us pick those three candidates out of the pool of 50 that we might best interview.

But reference letters are also often written in code. They are increasingly prey to the cult of the superlative, where all the adverbs (fantastically! superbly! tremendously! extremely! immensely!) we’ve worked so hard to prune from our other writings magically reappear, because we need to make the applicants we write for stand out. It seems like every applicant is always ranked in the “top 2%” of everyone the referee has ever had contact with. This paradox requires careful interpretation of the narrative portions of the letter.

There is also a kind of reference letter that seems to be written under duress: where the referee has tried gently or not-so-gently to dissuade an applicant, who nonetheless insists on getting said letter. These are easily enough deciphered by committees, but they never come right out and say, “I don’t want to write this letter, because I don’t think this student is ready for grad school.” Instead, they usually say something like “While I am happy to help out X with her application, I cannot be as thorough as I might be had I taught her in a course other than the 500 person introductory survey six years ago.”

In my time at Waterloo, I have written more than 40 different reference letters for students. I have served on the university committee that ranks SSHRC graduate fellowship applications. I spent three years on the graduate committee readings SSHRC and OGS apps, as well as applications to the program. I have spent three years on the appointments committee. I have read hundreds and hundreds of reference letters, all written in some form of code.

So this article has knocked my socks off. It’s not that I’m so terribly surprised that, generally, that gendered language is used to describe job candidates and students. It’s that the code words the article notes are ones I very much recognize as keywords I look for when evaluating letters. I do tend to be impressed by some of the descriptors coded female, and less impressed by some of those coded male. But over all, I hadn’t noticed these as gendered, and a lot of the ones from the feminized list of descriptors I have often understood to be code for “not that smart or accomplished.”

Let me tell you, I’ve been digging through all the reference letters on my computer that I’ve written for others. And I find myself largely innocent of gender-torpedoing those I’ve written for. But I’m sure as hell going to be a lot more conscious of this as I read all the letters I use to evaluate candidates, and more careful still of how I write them.

8 thoughts on “"Dear Committee …"

  1. This is one reason why good equal opportunities hiring practice suggests that reference letters only be used to confirm a decision already made and not to make it.

    In many areas, reference letters are only requested at the end of the process. Often a phone call will be used instead. And the purpose is to confirm information in the CV and other application materials (i.e. check the candidate didn't lie) and perhaps confirm any sense of the less tangible aspects.

    The widespread use of reference letters at the beginning of academic hiring and other processes in North America is somewhat worrying. As I recall, in the UK, reference letters were never sought in academic hiring decisions until the end of the process.

    Graduate fellowships are a slightly different situation since there is little other evidence to go on apart from marks, which may not tell us what we need to know about a student's abilities.


  2. Another dreadful tendency is for writers to spend much of their reference letter explaining what it is that the student's/applicant's/colleague's work is all about. As a reviewer, I want the s/a/c to explain. If the s/a/c can't explain in a compelling fashion the work and its significance to a non-specialist hiring/adjudication committee, then the odds are that s/he is not the best applicant. And if s/he did explain, then much of the reference letter is redundant.


  3. JoVE: I had no idea that reference letters were less important elsewhere. I think the reference letter here has become something magical: everyone's grades are inflated, everyone is ranked in the top 2%, everyone looks exactly the same. It's like once you get a form for something, everyone fills out the form in a way that will get the “A+”, right? The formless, real-deal reference letter seems like the last place where we lay it on the line. Or not.

    Nancy: aha! Correct. Although I do like to get a sense from the letters that the prof has read the proposal, and thinks it's awesome. Sometimes it's nice for a non-specialist audience to hear that the specialist is very clearly supportive not just of the student qua student, but of the project as an intellectual endeavour.


  4. I was not all that surprised by that article to be honest, though I'm not sure why. What I am wondering is whether the majority of female applicants actually display those “feminine” qualities and not the “masculine” ones or whether the referee is unconsciously focusing on them because he/she is describing a woman? Or does this go back to that issue of women not promoting themselves enough so the referee simply forgets about those achievements that would be considered more “masculine”?


  5. Perhaps the only adjective I've ever used from that list in the article is “ambitious,” and I'm pretty sure I've used it to describe both male and female applicants. (Most of the people I've written for over the years have been women.) Terms like “nurturing” and “sympathetic” don't tend to come up because I don't see it as my role to write a character reference. If I'm writing a letter for a student's scholarship application or a grad program, my job is to write about her research and her performance as a student (admittedly the second of these involves character language, but I try to limit it to the context of the classroom, office, and departmental life and to contextualize it with specific examples). Does that seem too narrow-minded? I just don't think it's my job to comment on personality traits–if someone has an organized, professional approach to their work I comment on that, but I can't really imagine a situation where I would ever need to use a word like “nurturing.” But what is the purpose of these letters? To describe and endorse someone's research or to reassure the committee that this person is a “good old girl?” Or a bit of both?

    I've never written a letter for someone going on to the academic job market because our PhD program is fairly new, although I've read lots of such letters when we've hired new faculty. It's probably more important to provide a sense of a candidate's personality in those letters than in a letter for a SSHRC grant, for example.
    Think of it this way: when a candidate with a fabulous academic record and research project from within our own MA program applies to our PhD program, do we disqualify her because she's (eccentric, shy, nurturing, competitive, etc.)? It's unethical to do so.

    I remember a letter for a job applicant to our department once that described the candidate (female) as “diffident” and it was a red flag for the committee. Or “quirky” — that was another one, about a different candidate. But is that fair?


  6. I envy the people who can comment confidently here that they have never used this language for women job applicants (and I agree, Jan, refs for research grants are markedly different). The thing is, I actively value collaboration and openness in potential colleagues, and I actively distrust single-minded ambition; I do notice that, in general, the women I support are more collaborative (by nature? by practice?) – and so it comes up. The article haunts me.

    Here's another interesting thing. I just came from a 7-person lunch with the VP(Research), among others – which I say just to contextualize the “level” of ppl there. ALL the women at the table (4) had read this newspaper article. NONE of the men (3) had even heard about it. “Here we are again, worrying about others,” I couldn't help thinking. Meanwhile, one of the men at the table had published 20 papers this year. ARGH!!!


  7. Heather — yeah, that's what I was getting at when I said I tended to value “female” characteristics in the letters. I guess that's why it's good to have diversity on the evaluation committees: our biases balance out?

    I'm appalled again at the continued evidence that it seems like women scholars care disproportionately about the *processes* of being an academic. Perhaps if I could sail blithely through all my letter writer never doubting my own practices, I could publish 20 papers a year. (Um, okay, probably not.)

    Jan, you're absolutely right: grant app letters are totally different from job letters, as they should be.


  8. If I saw a letter for a job applicant that referred to her as “collaborative, open, quirky, and diffident” I'd argue we should hire her on the spot!

    Okay, grant app letters are different from job letters, but what about the in-between: the letter of reference for a student applying to a PhD program, where she'll be a colleague-in-training?

    But I'm still wondering: we want job letters from referees to give us some sense of the person as a potential colleague, although of course it's the campus interview that's the real test. But if a term like “quirky” or “nurturing” or “competitive” can rule someone out of an interview altogether, as the article is indicating, then that's truly disturbing. I'm disturbed by the kind of power that gives me over someone else's life and career. Quirky might be a good thing for me, but who knows how that will be interpreted by someone else. I think JoVE's point is a good one. At the same time, I'm not happy with the idea that we would rule out subjective letters entirely and submit to the rule of the standardized form.


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