Male vs. Female Academic Reference Letters

31 03 2015

One of the most important jobs of any academic is writing reference letters for students. For the senior academics who supervise PhD students, the challenges involved in crafting supportive yet informative letters are particularly complex. That’s one of the reasons I was interested in a recent study that compared the words referees use in describing male and female candidates for tenure-track positions. (The study was based on job applications for US chemistry and biochemistry jobs).  This word clouds suggests that there are significant differences.

male and female words


The study found that research-related adjectives appear more frequently in references letters for male applicants, while teaching-related words appear in the letter sent on behalf of women. The study implicitly, and rightly, questions whether this pattern in word choices is an accurate reflection of the actual relative aptitude of male and female academics for research and teaching.

This study raises many important issues about gender equality, hiring practices, and indeed the fundamental purpose of the university. More prosaically, it is a reminder of the importance of taking care in writing reference letters.



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