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Raising Doubt in Letters of Recommendation for Academia: Gender Differences and Their Impact

Abstract

The extent of gender bias in academia continues to be an object of inquiry, and recent research has begun to examine the particular gender biases emblematic in letters of recommendations. This current two-part study examines differences in the number of doubt raisers that are written in 624 authentic letters of recommendations for 174 men and women applying for eight assistant professor positions (study 1) and the impact of these doubt raisers on 305 university professors who provided evaluations of recommendation letters (study 2). The results show that both male and female recommenders use more doubt raisers in letters of recommendations for women compared to men and that the presence of certain types of doubt raisers in letters of recommendations results in negative outcomes for both genders. Since doubt raisers are more frequent in letters for women than men, women are at a disadvantage relative to men in their applications for academic positions. We discuss the implications and need for additional future research and practice that (1) raises awareness that letter writers are gatekeepers who can improve or hinder women’s progress and (2) develops methods to eliminate the skewed use of doubt raisers.

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Funding

This paper was funded by an NIH Grant (1R01GM088530).

Author information

Correspondence to Juan M. Madera.

Appendices

Appendix 1. Data Transparency Appendix

The data reported in this submitted manuscript (study 1 data only) have been previously published. Findings from the data collection have been reported in separate manuscripts. MS 1 (published) focuses on communal and agentic descriptions of applicants in letters of recommendations for academic positions as the dependent variables. MS 2 (the current submitted manuscript) focuses on doubt raiser descriptions of applicants in letters of recommendations as the dependent variables. The table below displays where each data variable appears in each study, as well as the current status of each study.

Variables in the complete dataset MS 1
(status = pub)
MS 2
(status = current)
Communal adjectives x  
Social-communal orientation x  
Agentic adjectives x  
Agentic orientation x  
Doubt raisers: negatives   x
Doubt raisers: hedges   x
Doubt raisers: faint praises   x
Doubt raisers: irrelevancies   x
Applicant gender x x
Letter writer gender x x

Appendix 2. Letter Exemplar

Dear Search Committee,

It is with enthusiasm that I recommend AA for a tenure track faculty position (Assistant Professor) within the <DEPT> at WR99. I was AA’s doctoral research advisor at WRNR and I know AA both professionally and personally. As a graduate student, AA also served as my teaching assistant for two undergraduate laboratory classes. AA was an impressive student who I have had the pleasure to work with at WRNR.

<MANIPULATION HERE> being successful in developing an independent research program at your institution. I have seen AA mature into a more careful scientist who demonstrates competence, leadership skills, and curiosity. I have kept in close contact with AA during <his/her> post doctoral training and know that <he/she> has matured scientifically and has expanded <his/her> knowledge base into other closely-related fields. AA has aptitude to continue developing in the field. In terms of research, AA has published two manuscripts based on <his/her> thesis work in my lab, and a third manuscript is pending submission. I know that AA detailed this work in <his/her> research statement so I will only state here that it is published in a solid journal and is theoretically strong and methodologically sound.

AA projects professionalism, whether it is in the lecture room and undergraduate laboratory, the research laboratory, or at conferences. AA is hardworking and also willing to take time to teach others. AA became a leader in my research lab, taking time to mentor undergraduate students and less senior PhD students. AA has given a series of tutorial lectures on statistics in Psychology to the PhD students at WR99. AA is very willing to help others and I believe <he/she> demonstrates natural teaching abilities plus <he/she> greatly enjoys it. Both AA’s skills and his vision are broad and fine-tuned.

In conclusion, I have come to regard AA with respect over the past several years. I hope you interview <him/her>. If you have any further questions about AA, please do not hesitate to phone me at [number removed].

Sincerely,

ZZ, PhD

Associate Professor of <DEP>

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Madera, J.M., Hebl, M.R., Dial, H. et al. Raising Doubt in Letters of Recommendation for Academia: Gender Differences and Their Impact. J Bus Psychol 34, 287–303 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10869-018-9541-1

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Keywords

  • Letters of recommendation
  • Gender schemas
  • Discrimination
  • Sex roles
  • Academia