Inside Higher Ed’s “Too Nice to Land a Job” article has this to say:
You are reading a letter of recommendation that praises a candidate for a faculty job as being “caring,” “sensitive,” “compassionate,” or a “supportive colleague.” Whom do you picture?
New research suggests that to faculty search committees, such words probably conjure up a woman — and probably a candidate who doesn’t get the job. The scholars who conducted the research believe they may have pinpointed one reason for the “leaky pipeline” that frustrates so many academics, who see that the percentage of women in senior faculty jobs continues to lag the percentage of those in junior positions and that the share in junior positions continues to lag those earning doctorates.
The research is based on a content analysis of 624 letters of recommendation submitted on behalf of 194 applicants for eight junior faculty positions at an unidentified research university. The study found patterns in which different kinds of words were more likely to be used to describe women, while other words were more often used to describe men.
So, when you are asking folks to write reference letters, it is probably a good idea to show them the article or send them a copy of the study.
I am going through some of the reference letters I know have been sent out.
The closest that a former chair came to the words discussed were: “She is cooperative, conscientious, and reliable.” This was in the middle of a paragraph about my students having respect for me and positive evaluations as well as how I helped the department implement their goals.
A co-worker wrote: [Dr. Davis’] “willingness to collaborate, whether on teaching endeavors or on publications or presentations, will be, I believe, both pleasant and welcome. Your department will benefit from her presence as Suanna would bring the type of â€œteam workâ€ attitude necessary for the sake of facilitating student learning. ”
Is that too close?
At the end of a long letter praising my teaching, another former chair wrote: “In addition, [Dr. Davis] is a personable, intelligent educator who is blessed with abundant literary interest and enthusiasm. She is a scholar who loves to teach, and she enjoys discussing her teaching with her peers. She is pleasant and professional, and she listens carefully and courteously to other people.”
Hmmm. Maybe you should send notes to your reference writers. Or maybe I should send them to mine.