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A Linguistic Comparison of Letters of Recommendation for Male and Female Chemistry and Biochemistry Job Applicants

Abstract

Letters of recommendation are central to the hiring process. However, gender stereotypes could bias how recommenders describe female compared to male applicants. In the current study, text analysis software was used to examine 886 letters of recommendation written on behalf of 235 male and 42 female applicants for either a chemistry or biochemistry faculty position at a large U.S. research university. Results revealed more similarities than differences in letters written for male and female candidates. However, recommenders used significantly more standout adjectives to describe male as compared to female candidates. Letters containing more standout words also included more ability words and fewer grindstone words. Research is needed to explore how differences in language use affect perceivers’ evaluations of female candidates.

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Correspondence to Toni Schmader.

Additional information

This research was supported by National Institute of Mental Health Grant #1R01MH071749 to the first author and a University of Arizona grant from the College of Science Millennium Report Oversight Committee awarded to the third author.

Appendix

Appendix

Study-Defined Dimension Dictionaries

Standout words: excellen*, superb, outstanding, unique, exceptional, unparalleled, *est, most, wonderful, terrific*, fabulous, magnificent, remarkable, estraordinar*, amazing, supreme*, unmatched

Ability words: talent*, intell*, smart*, skill*, ability, genius, brilliant*, bright*, brain*, aptitude, gift*, capacity, propensity, innate, flair, knack, clever*, expert*, proficient*, capable, adept*, able, competent, natural*, inherent*, instinct*, adroit*, creative*, insight*, analytical

Grindstone words: hardworking, conscientious, depend*, meticulous, thorough, diligen*, dedicate, careful, reliab*, effort*, assiduous, trust*, responsib*, methodical, industrious, busy, work*, persist*, organiz*, disciplined

Teaching words: teach, instruct, educat*, train*, mentor, supervis*, adviser, counselor, syllabus, syllabus, course*, class, service, colleague, citizen, communicate*, lectur*, student*, present*, rapport

Research words: research*, data, study, studies, experiment*, scholarship, test*, result*, finding*, publication*, publish*, vita*, method*, scien*, grant*, fund*, manuscript*, project*, journal*,theor*, discover*, contribution*

Note. * indicates that any word containing the letter string that precedes or follows the asterisk should be counted.

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Schmader, T., Whitehead, J. & Wysocki, V.H. A Linguistic Comparison of Letters of Recommendation for Male and Female Chemistry and Biochemistry Job Applicants. Sex Roles 57, 509–514 (2007). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11199-007-9291-4

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Keywords

  • Gender schemas
  • Sexism
  • Implicit biases
  • Hiring decisions
  • Chemistry