Are you unintentionally writing biased reference letters for your female trainees?

While it can be argued that acts of outright sexism have decreased in the academy, acts of underground, unconscious, and unintentional sexist behaviour are rampant. We unfortunately have plenty of examples covered in the popular media of such behaviour that we can point to in the past several months alone.

A few years ago I heard about a study that indicated that male and female researchers exhibited unconscious negative bias when writing reference letters for female trainees. At the time I was concerned because I had just come back from a 9 month maternity leave after my son was born. Years later, I took a second maternity leave after the birth of my daughter. Was it possible that my reference letter writers, in an effort to be helpful, could actually be harming my chances of succeeding in academia?

A few days ago Natalie Samson wrote a great article for University Affairs that brought this issue back into my consciousness. In that article she confirmed that the Canada Research Chairs program is now including explicit guidance to letter writers on how to ensure that unconscious bias does not enter into their reference letters written for female nominees. Natalie Samson outlines quite effectively why the program has decided that these guidelines are necessary for letter writers.

Let’s take a look at some of the CRC recommendations for letter writers. There are two sub- sections in the “Guidelines and Best Practices for Reference Letter Writers” section that are pertinent. One is entitled “Best Practices” and the other is called “Limiting Unconscious Bias”. Several are really interesting.
For example, letter writers are warned against being “unduly personal” and to avoid using the applicant’s first name. Most of the letters that I write are for undergraduate students and in my introductory paragraphs I list the student’s full name (e.g. Ms. Jane Doe or Mr. John Doe) and then refer to them as Jane or John throughout the rest of my letter. I have yet to write a reference letter for a post-doc or colleague and in that case I think that I’ll now refer to them as Dr. Doe given this advice.

Another example that I would hope would be painfully obvious to everyone is to comment only on information that is relevant to the position and to “not include information related to ethnicity, age, hobbies, marital status, religion, etc.” The fact that this is included in the guidelines indicates that some letter writers have done this in the past.

The third great piece of advice is to avoid “revealing personal information about the nominee”. This is a fine line to walk and you need to consider carefully whether introducing particular pieces of information will actually be relevant or helpful for the candidate. The example that the guidelines give is mentioning “circumstances where health issues or family responsibilities have led to career interruptions.” Is it appropriate to mention your graduate student’s maternity/parental leave? Are you mentioning Jane’s maternity leave in the context of impacting her productivity? Would you also mention the fact that John being a new father impacted his productivity? Is it your place to disclose your student’s cancer treatment, a disability, elder care issues? I would argue that you should explicitly talk about those issues with your trainee prior to writing the letter and ask them how they would prefer that you handle it. I would argue that this would be the only context where talking about a student’s personal life is potentially relevant enough to include in your letter and that you should do so only after asking their permission.

What do we do as letter writers that is a disservice to our female trainees? According to the CRC Guidelines page, the letters we write for women are more likely to:
• be shorter in length and incomplete;
• include gendered terms (e.g., woman, lady, mother, wife);
• include fewer ‘standout’ adjectives (e.g., excellent, outstanding etc.);
• include ‘doubt raisers’ (negative language, hedges, unexplained comments, faint praise and irrelevancies);
• focus on interpersonal attributes versus research skills/achievements (e.g., kindness, compassionate etc.); and
• include personal information that was not relevant to the position.

Three effective ways to prevent this are to:
• Avoid using stereotypical adjectives when describing character and skills, especially when providing a letter for a woman (e.g., avoid words like nice, kind, agreeable, sympathetic, compassionate, selfless, giving, caring, warm, nurturing, maternal, etc.).
• Consider using ‘stand-out’ adjectives for both men and women, where appropriate (e.g., superb, excellent, outstanding, confident, successful, ambitious, knowledgeable, intellectual etc.).
• Consider whether your letter unintentionally includes gaps, or doubt-raising, negative or unexplained statements (e.g., ‘might make an excellent leader’ versus ‘is an established leader’).

These are great recommendations and should be required reading for any faculty members who are writing reference letters for their students and trainees. They have made me rethink several practices that I use in crafting my reference letters and have identified some things that I need to stop doing.


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