Implicit Gender Bias: Recommendation Letters and Career Advancement in STEM

By Roberta Attanasio, Forever Leaders Editor

Letters of recommendation are often the most important component of applications for college, graduate or medical school, for fellowships, scholarships, internships, jobs, and for many more types of applications. These letters can be very persuasive, especially when applications are very similar in terms of education and experience. They provide the individuals evaluating the application with valuable external perspectives on the strengths, abilities and accomplishments of the applicant, and emphasize skills and competencies that may not be easily discerned from objective data such as GRE scores, GPA, and similar. Now, results from a new study show that letters of recommendations may reflect gender bias—women are significantly less likely to receive excellent recommendation letters than their male counterparts when applying for postdoctoral fellowships.

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Photo credit: Jason Dean, CC BY 2.0

The study (Gender Differences in Recommendation Letters for Postdoctoral Fellowships in Geoscience) was published in Nature Geoscience on October 3, 2016, and focused on recommendation letters submitted by applicants for a highly selective postdoctoral fellowships in the geosciences at a top-tier U.S. research university.

The study authors analyzed an international data set of 1,224 recommendation letters, submitted by recommenders from 54 countries, over the period 2007–2012. They evaluated the overall tone of the letter, guided by comments that would separate an applicant from being perceived as excellent rather than just good. Phrases such as “scientific leader,” “brilliant scientist,” “role model,” and “trailblazer” could boost a candidate into the “excellent” category. Phrases such as “highly intelligent,” “very productive” and “very knowledgeable,” in the absence of additional information, placed a candidate in the “good” category.

The authors found that female applicants were only half as likely as men to receive letters written in ways that portrayed them as “excellent.” Female candidates were rather portrayed as “good” candidates. The letters written for female applicants were less likely to make the applicants stand out. Interestingly, the use of different language for male and females was consistent across letter writers. Indeed, it didn’t matter if the letter writer was a woman or a man, or from the Americas, Africa, Europe, or Asia; the results were universal. The researchers concluded that women are significantly less likely to receive excellent recommendation letters than their male counterparts at a critical juncture in their career, and believe that unconscious (implicit) gender bias determines how recommenders write their letters.

Kuheli Dutt, lead author of the study, said in a press release: “To be clear, we are not assigning blame or accusing anyone of being consciously sexist. We are all shaped by our biases; implicit biases surface in certain ways, and this may be one of them. The key thing here is to use these results to start meaningful dialogues on implicit bias.”

The fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), including the geosciences, are plagued by gender disparities. In the geosciences, women receive 40% of doctoral degrees, but hold less than 10% of full professor positions. In an era when women are increasingly prominent in medicine, law, and business, why are there so few women scientists and engineers? The American Association of University Women (AAUW) describes research findings pointing to environmental and social barriers that continue to block women’s progress in STEM. These barriers include stereotypes, gender bias, and the climate of science and engineering departments in colleges and universities.

Implicit biases develop subconsciously from the beliefs and stereotypes that we hear and experience throughout our lives, and they can affect how we perceive others. Previous studies in other fields have found, for example, that women are more likely to be described in collective terms such as “nurturing,” “diligent,” or “a team player,” while men are more likely to be described as “confident” or “dynamic.” For a field that is looking for leaders, these adjectives can make the difference in how a candidate is perceived.

Dutt said that their results are consistent with widespread implicit bias. She added: “You want to have the best available talent pool in the geosciences, and if you consistently hold certain biases against a certain section of the available pool, you’re not going to get the best talent.”

Copyright © 2016-2018 Forever Leaders.

11 comments

  1. Implicit biases are things we all want to believe we don’t have, and most of our explicit thoughts counter these biases. Let’s face it – most of us have taken an Implicit Association Test and found out that we implicitly associate femaleness with being weaker and more nurturing. It’s heartbreaking because most of us believe we are exactly the opposite!

    With that being said, it is not surprising that recommendation letters reflect men and women so differently. If we hold these implicit biases as women, then of course men will hold the same! We all are socialized to fit the gender binary system, and again, we all act accordingly (for the most part) whether we realize it or not. Although it is not shocking to see that men and women are described so differently in letters of recommendation, my question is this: If a male and female in college are participating and producing work at the same level, then how can a professor not give them the same exact evaluation?

    I think the answer lies in the fact that men are expected to do great, and when they do, it just proves the point that they are naturally brilliant and capable. Women aren’t expected to do as well as their male counterparts, and when they do, that’s simply not enough; they must also go above and beyond what the male did to even have a chance at receiving the same respect and praise. So what is the point of going the extra mile if we’re still not considered excellent?

    Research is there to prove these biases, yet people fail to listen to it. It is disheartening to believe that a professor I have developed a close relationship with could possibly rate me differently than a male just because I am not a part of the dominant gender group. Unless someone is overtly sexist, then how do you make it known to them that they have a gender bias embedded in them? It seems almost impossible even though the research is all there for their viewing pleasure.

    Is it really their fault for how they were socialized? Is it really their fault that they were socialized in the same way that their parents were socialized? It is a never ending generational cycle of socialization and gender biases/beliefs. It just sucks that those who are not white males are the ones that are constantly and consistently believed to be not as good or up to par with those who have always been in control.

    See the issue yet?

    • I admit that I have implicit biases about sciences. When I read a scientific article, I often find myself assuming that the lead author is a male, probably because it’s usually true. Now that I’ve been in Women Lead I at least catch myself more often.

      Another thing I remember reading in Lean In is that women are judged for their past performance; men are judged for their potential. In addition to this problem, because the sciences are already so male-dominated, people expect that men will automatically be more successful. So even if a man and a woman have produced the same exact performance, some people will judge the man more fairly because they think the woman needed to do more to prove that she belongs or deserves the advancement.

      However, I’m a bit more optimistic because I don’t think that the cycle is “never ending.” I think that relationship dynamics are constantly evolving. I’m hoping that the professors we develop relationships with can see through our gender to our real leadership potential. And the more people learn about these biases, the more women will stand up for themselves and (hopefully) evaluators will judge their own opinions more critically.

    • I agree with Taylor when she expresses her optimism for the future. For generations there has been a cycle of gender biases/beliefs, but look at yourself. You are thinking differently. If you keep these biases in mind when making decisions, you can change the world. You’re not the only one recognizing these issues, you have support! The fact that all of us are taking a course titled “Women Lead In Science” shows the progress made by women in past generations. It is exhausting and disheartening to think of all the obstacles we must face just because of our gender, but that also makes the rewards that much greater. Those of us who make it to positions of power can lend a hand to others who want to make changes. It all starts with getting information out. Even talking about the effects of gender biases to your family can have a butterfly effect. If you are important to someone, I truly believe they will try to understand your perspective and listen to suggestions made to combat these issues.

  2. I agree with the above comment. It may not be their fault that they were socialized to be this way, but at the end of the day, it is. Studies like this are what help us move on and attempt to halt or hinder this negative socialization. I’m sure many of us can only sigh as we read this, because the process of actually obtaining a recommendation letter is so jarring. I’d like to discuss a way to actually begin to fix this socialization. However, we must realize that this bias prevails in many aspects. Females can show this bias to other females as well.

  3. Gender biases is almost inevitable if the person doesn’t acknowledge it. And that person includes but is not limited to those evaluating or judging an individual. Gender biases has been an issue going on for many years and the women suffrage movement has only done so much to effectively eradicate this mental epidemic. But the only people who can change are the one’s who can acknowledge and recognize what is happening. And acknowledgement and recognition can only occur with education.

    Has there been any considering of if those exhibiting implicit bias during this research? I would assume that they weren’t because if they were, their conscious would want to steer them away from that type of thinking. If an evaluate was not knowledgeable about the signs of gender biases, then they were educated, I believe that they would be more conscious. It is easy to criticize others for what they have done in the past and present, but if we do not stop to help others see what they can not and others can, the cycle will continue. On the other hand, gender biases isn’t a given at birth, it has to be learned or observed from somewhere. It’s astonishing that with the feminism rights and the platforms used to decreases biases within genders (and minorities) that a lot practices and ways towards women haven’t changed much. Therefore those have to be willing to change.

  4. It is truly unfortunate that women are less likely to receive excellent letters of recommendation. I can’t even imagine how awful it would feel to complete a PhD, then receive mediocre letters of recommendation that do not help me obtain a competitive post doc position. Gender bias is real, and in situations like this, can cost women their dream jobs. Even with a background in psychology, I will not even begin to act like I know how to stop gender bias. However, I think women in science should be extra careful when selecting advisors, from undergrad through post doc. Women MUST make sure they are picking advisors that will nurture their career not destroy it! When choosing advisors, and potential letter writers, look at their CV – most of the time it can be found online. Have they had women students before that went on to competitive positions? If women are currently in their labs, talk with them! How has their experience been? Talk directly with the advisors before hand as well, multiple times, and see how the interactions go.
    Also, don’t be discouraged. It is absolutely possible to find advisors, male or female, that will advocate for women in science.

    • Being a sophomore Psychology major trying to navigate myself through research labs and doing research on graduate programs, this advice is extremely helpful. I never knew you could find your professors CV online to see if they’ll be a better fit for your letter. My current professor has stressed that the relationships you build with professors, coworkers, managers, and other people are vital when applying for graduate school- but how will you know which one of those people will write a great recommendation letter? I guess it all depends on how much feedback and constructive criticism you receive from that individual to know where you stand with them.

  5. The findings of this research really saddened me to know that a letter of recommendation can keep a woman from moving forward in her career, regardless of her achievements of qualifications. As it was said in the above comments, the process of obtaining a letter of recommendation is so stressful, that it is disappointing to hear that, although the hard work, it could potentially hurt our careers instead of complimenting it. This is one of the areas where the apparent gender biases need to be addressed and amended. Another point mentioned in the above comments was that people may not be aware that they are being sexist when writing it, but at the end of the day they are the only ones responsible.

    All we can ask is that people writing the letters of recommendation to read over their letter and ask themselves if they would word the letter similarly if the individual was a man. People must hold themselves accountable and analyze how their influence could affect the progression of a young woman’s career.

    I agree with Jenna that women need to be sure they are choosing people who have shown to be fair for both genders when writing letters of recommendations and who will help better their career, not hinder it. Women need to seek mentors in people who have been seen to break down the walls of gender biases because these are the people who will work to build them up and not tear them down. Women also need to support each other and build a network, because these women can lead each other in the right directions to move a career forward.

  6. First of all, it is very disappointing to hear that women are hindered from succeeding because of unfit recommendations that can determine their futures. I agree with all the ladies above that gender bias is an issue that is socially ingrained into our society, but I agree with Taylor that it is their responsibility to know they have these biases because we should take accountability for all of our actions as educated individuals. Furthermore, we should be aware of whether or not we have biases. Also, I want to mention that it is our responsibility as college students to get to know our professors, advisors, etc. that are writing our recommendations because women tend to wait until the last minute to ask for recommendations and fail to create that connection with a potential professional that can attest to our capabilities. By developing a great relationship with our professors and advisors we can then attest to whether they are a fit for us and they will be honest with us enough to let us know if they can write a strong recommendation or not. I believe women should not be afraid to ask if the person can speak to their strengths and if the professor or advisor cares they’ll be honest enough to say yes or no. So, my advice would be to build professional relationships and ask as many questions you feel you need to ask to make sure this person is a right fit for writing your recommendation.

  7. It is so unfortunate that people have implicit biases and describe equally competent candidates in different ways simply because of their genitalia. This is one factor that I simply cannot get past. How is it that half of the population is going to get the short end of the stick in many professional situations simply based on genitalia? Why do we not judge and accept people based on their minds and not their appearances? Why has this continuous perpetuation of stereotypes and sexism become so widespread and unchanging? I am really interested to see my difference in writing when discussing a male candidate versus a female candidate. It is bound to somehow be different and that infuriates me. I would like to think that I do not have these implicit biases, but I cannot say that I do not. This widespread belief and brainwashing that we receive from society has such a powerful stronghold over all of us. It is unfortunate, but I do not really see it changing. I know a lot is different since 100 years ago, however, today’s issues concerning sexism still feel archaic. I really like Dutt’s quote that is listed in the ending paragraph. This is exactly what I wrote in the last discussion post. How can we expect the world to flourish, and how can we expect there to be new ideas that will change the world if we do not give a huge portion of the pool a chance to possibly be the one to provide these ideas?

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