Are your reference letters gendered?

People who write letters of reference for jobs should be careful of unconscious bias in their choice of words, a leading Cambridge academic has stated.

Dame Athene Donald from the University of Cambridge, who has long championed women in science, wrote in a blog this week that many letters of reference are written in a gendered way. For instance, women are described as conscientious, hard-working and a team player whereas men are more likely to get a reference that says they are dynamic and creative.

She says this can be detrimental to their career progression. She writes: “As with so many of the different strands that make up unconscious bias, making the bias conscious so that the letter writer pauses, pen metaphorically in the air, may make all the difference. Do you really mean your star female PhD student is hard-working and conscientious – or was the message that you wanted to convey in fact that she was outstanding, goes the extra mile and always exceeds your expectations about what is possible, demonstrating great originality en route? There is an enormous difference in the impact of the two descriptions.”

She says there is now a website reference letter writers can use to highlight words that may be perceived as gendered. She adds that other sites can give helpful advice: for generic jobs advice can be found here.

Donald calls for greater discussion of the issue. She says: “The more this issue is discussed explicitly, the less women will be unintentionally disadvantaged.”

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