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Are my recommendation letters gendered?

At a recent meeting I attended, one of the keynote speakers reminded the audience that recommenders often use very different language for the men and women who they recommend. The speakers claimed that letters about men tend to use stronger words and to focus more on issues like achievement and innovation, while letters about women tend to focus more on collaboration. (I believe that the research they were citing is the Trix and Psenka paper on recommendations for medical faculty.)

In a recent essay, I reflected on writing letters of recommendation. Given that I was thinking about letters of recommendation, and that I was being challenged to think about the language recommenders use, it seemed like an opportunity time to explore this issue in my own letters of recommendation.

I’m too lazy to do a deep textual analysis of my recommendation letters. I also write recommendation letters for a wide variety of things — graduate school, study-abroad programs, summer research programs, grant opportunities, and more, so it’s likely that the structure and expected lengths of the letters will be different.

Therefore, I’m going to take the easy way out. Most of the introductory paragraphs of my essays have a fairly standard three-part form: I describe how I know the student. I say something about their strengths. And then I give a level of recommendation (e.g., I recommend them highly, I recommend them with reservations, etc.) The sentence or two about their strengths seems like a good place to look for language differences.

Let’s start with a quiz. Here are slightly edited core sentences from the opening paragraphs of my last twenty letters of recommendation for students. (I’m leaving out the letters for colleagues.) I’ve tried to remove identifying characteristics and I’ve also changed pronouns and other gendered words.
Can you tell which are for women and which are for men?

Student 01 is a fantastic student, whose talents are difficult to enumerate - they are intelligent, hard working, mature, thoughtful, good at working with peers, willing to make their opinion known (and able to do so politely), and much more. They also show outstanding leadership skills and collaborate well with others.

Student 02 is a bright, talented, organized young person with interests that span computer science, [discipline], [discipline], and more.

Student 03 is a thoughtful student who works well with their peers and is proactive in their education.

Student 04 is an engaged and clever student who works well with others.

Student 05 is an engaged and engaging student with broad interests in computer science, [discipline], and [discipline], interests that will serve them well in [the opportunity].

Student 06 is a talented and engaged young person who clearly cares about making the experiences of students around them better and who has the respect of their peers.

Student 07 has been an excellent student, teaching assistant, and research assistant. They are also deeply concerned about the ways in which computing can make the world a better place.

Student 08 is a solid student with good teamwork skills and great initiative.

Student 09 is a quiet, somewhat under-confident and under-achieving young person who would benefit from [this opportunity].

Student 10 is a change-maker on the Grinnell campus, active in promoting discussion of issues of [topic], [topic], and more.

Student 11 is a thoughtful, and organized young person who serves as an advisor and a model to their peers.

Student 12 has many excellent characteristics, particularly that they are tenacious, responsible, very hard-working, and stunningly caring about the people around them.

Student 13 is a wonderful student - engaged in class, successful in their work, collaborative, and delightful to work with.

Student 14 is a talented and enthusiastic young person who takes a leadership role both within and beyond the department.

Student 15 is an active and involved student who I expect will take good advantage of the [opportunity].

Student 16’s work in [my courses] was quite good and often excellent. I also saw them work very well in a team and communicate well with non-technical people.

Student 17 is a strong student, passionate about programming, and I expect that they will do well in [the program].

Student 18 is an exceptional student - bright, dedicated, hard working, thoughtful, and forward looking. Importantly, they show strong leadership skills, including both the willingness and ability to advocate for others, the talent to organize peers around a common goal, and a strong passion for making a difference.

Student 19 is a bright young person with an incredible enthusiasm for learning and a very strong work ethic who also works well with others.

Student 20 is a solid student with good leadership skills who also works well with others.

When you are done thinking about it, you can check the key.

What have I learned from this exercise?

It’s clear that there are a few students who I think are truly exceptional. Students 01 and 18 stand out, but there are certainly others whose broader letters go into more detail. Those letters needed to focus on particular characteristics, so I went a bit deeper in the introductory paragraph. But I should probably work on writing a bit more for all students.

Students 8, 9, and 20 are students I respect a lot, but who have less strong grades. I think I do a reasonable job of highlighting strengths, and work hard to do so in my letters.

But I don’t see many differences in my choices of words between women and men. Or at least I don’t think I do. I may write young woman more than I write young man, so perhaps I should think about that language. I could drop the young; however, given that these folks are relatively young, and often describe themselves asgirls" and boys, I don’t feel too bad about the language. I guess I could use student, although not all of them are my students.

What else? I thought I’d see more uses of delightful for young women. I don’t think I’d use that adjective for a man. However, Michelle tells me that she regularly uses it for her male students, so perhaps it’s something we use for the opposite gender (at least when we are thinking in a gender binary). I also note that I only used it once in these twenty letters, and I’ve used it for four of the 180+ people whose letters I still have.

Michelle noticed that I used the word tenacious to describe a woman. I think of that as a positive term, but Michelle does not hear it as such. I have only used it for two students. Interestingly, one of those is a student I also described as delightful. I’ll have to think about that.

I found it interesting that there were a few cases in which I could find fairly similar male/female pairs. I think I find that comforting.

I look forward to hearing what other people see in my writing.

Side note: It appears that the research literature is mixed on this issue. For example, one research paper on job letters for chemistry and biochemistry seems to have shown little difference in language usage about men and women candidates.

Version 1.0 of 2016-05-26.