Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Don’t Masculinize the Letter of Recommendation: Towards a Truly Gender-Brave Science Community

The below is a guest blog post by Professors Andy Elby and Ayush Gupta.

Andy Elby is a Associate Professor of Teaching & Learning, Policy & Leadership and Affiliate Associate Professor of Physics at the University of Maryland.  His research aims to understand how students’ views about what
counts as knowledge in a given setting affects their approaches to learning and problem-solving.

Ayush Gupta is a Research Assistant Professor of Physics at the University of Maryland. He is interested in gaining a better understanding of how the human mind operates and learns. He wants to use this understanding to promote a more equitable education system and an overall scientific and rational way of thinking in society – awareness and education being the slow but steady path towards greater social justice without instability.

In a recent letter of recommendation about an ex-student applying for a competitive assistant professorship, we wrote, “It helps, too, that [Applicant] has a laid-back style and genuine humbleness…[Applicant] truly listens to other people’s perspectives.”  Was it misguided of us to include humbleness and good listening skills in our recommendation? And should the answer depend on whether Applicant is male or female?

Dr. Marcia McNutt, Editor-in-Chief of Science Journals, offers answers to these questions in a recent Science editorial.  Reviewing graduate student applications for small research grants, Dr. McNutt noticed that letters of recommendation about women disproportionately included descriptors such as “friendly,” “kind,” and “humble.”  Dr. McNutt writes, “those were not necessarily the most relevant characteristics I was looking for in the next generation of scientists to advance the frontiers of discovery,” adding that descriptors such as “brilliant,” “hard-working,” and “independent” are more relevant. Dr. McNutt further argues that characteristics such as ability to balance work and life do “not belong in letters of recommendation.”  She concludes that inclusion of such “inappropriate” information and disproportionate use of descriptors such as “friendly” and “humble” to describe women puts women at a disadvantage and therefore constitutes a form of gender bias that recommenders should strive to avoid.

We agree with Dr. McNutt about the importance of avoiding gender bias in awarding grants and jobs and hence the need to avoid gender bias in letters of recommendation. Indeed, gender bias in letters of recommendation has been documented by research studies (Schmader, Whitehead, & Wysocki 2007; Madera, Helb, & Martin, 2009 [1]). So, we agree that, when writing letters about a woman and a man who are equally friendly and brilliant, a recommender should strive to fight the cultural bias toward emphasizing the women’s friendliness and the man’s brilliance; both letters should emphasize the appropriate characteristics equally. And of course, any mention of friendliness should complement, not replace, commentary on the candidate’s scholarship, work ethic, creativity, and so on.

Our point, however, is that Dr. McNutt’s prescriptions, taken as a whole, could unintentionally reify and thereby perpetuate a form of gender bias just as insidious as the kind her recommendations intend to mitigate. Being gender-blind within a male-dominated patriarchal system can allow certain forms of oppression to continue. Specifically, by taking as a given that characteristics generally considered feminine by  current American society—humble, friendly, nice, good listener, good at balancing work and family life—should be deemphasized or omitted from letters of recommendation and hence from selection committees’ deliberations, we reinforce the “masculine” culture of science that disproportionately drives women away. Dr. McNutt’s advice would help a few more women climb the ladder of science but would maintain the cultural status quo by accepting rather than challenging what selection committees should value.

We think science would benefit from more women and men who are humble, good listeners, kind, and eager to create and participate in family-friendly, mentally healthy work environments. Bringing such people into science won’t happen systematically if we adopt Dr. McNutt’s view that it is simply inappropriate for a recommender to mention that a candidate excels at balancing work and family. It won’t happen if selection committees consider humbleness and kindness to be much less important than traits everyone agrees should matter—creativity, independence, persistence, and so on. It won’t happen if we take Dr. McNutt’s assertion that “‘nice’ never got me a research grant or professional position” as an argument that “nice” shouldn’t be too relevant rather than as a reminder that the culture of science has devalued “feminine” traits. Instead, challenging the reification of what we (as a society) have come to see as “masculine” and “feminine” could allow for greater freedom of being for all such that any-gendered [2] scientists can be free to embrace that which is labeled as feminine and that which is labeled as masculine without being held hostage to either. Don’t we want professors, who mentor graduate students and teach undergraduates, to be hard-working, creative, but also nice? Of course, niceness alone shouldn’t get someone a job in science, but it should matter.

We acknowledge, however, the challenge of implementing such a vision in practice. Given the current climate, recommenders could have reasonable concerns that mentioning humility and work-life balance would hurt a candidate’s chances. There is the fear that, given the time constraints faced by hiring committees choosing finalists from dozens (or even hundreds) of applicants, it would be difficult to have meaningful conversation around these issues. We don’t have answers to these really difficult implementation questions. But we can speculate. For example, when writing job descriptions, maybe committees could include the expectation that candidates create research-group work environments that are equitable, inclusive, and supportive of group-members’ professional goals.  Maybe in both of our roles, writing letters as references and evaluating letters as search committee members, we could frame humbleness, kindness, and work-life balance abilities as resources for creating more productive research environments. Maybe conversations about who we want as colleagues and what culture we want in our departments need to pervade all committees (not just hiring committees) and other social spaces where we interact with colleagues. In this way we can move towards seeing these conversations as addressing what work environments we want to create, not just whom we want to hire.

P.S. Conversations with Chandra Turpen and Alice Olmstead inform our thoughts expressed in this blog post.


Title Footnote: The term gender-brave first came up in conversation with Stephen Secules, following Melody Hobson’s use of the term “color-brave” in her TED talk titled “Color Blind or Color Brave

[1] Schmader, T., Whitehead, J., & Wysocki, V. H. (2007). A Linguistic Comparison of Letters of Recommendation for Male and Female Chemistry and Biochemistry Job Applicants. Sex Roles, 57(7-8), 509–514.  
Madera, J. M., Hebl, M. R., & Martin, R. C. (2009). Gender and letters of recommendation for academia: Agentic and communal differences. Journal of Applied Psychology, 94(6), 1591–1599.  

[2] By “any-gendered” we mean to indicate not just “masculine” and “feminine” but the entire spectrum of gender (including non-gender/agender) available to us