*Academia: Wanted–Balls

Professors Michelle Hebl and Randi Martin along with their graduate student Juan Madera at Rice University have been studying how reference letters differ for men and women and how these differences affect their chances of obtaining an academic position.

The upshot (controlling for publications and all that) is that women are said to be nice and helpful (communal) while men are bold and daring (agentic). Even when names are removed from the letters, those who are doing the hiring prefer ballsy.

“We found that being communal is not valued in academia,” said Martin, the Elma Schneider Professor of Psychology at Rice. “The more communal characteristics mentioned, the lower the evaluation of the candidate.”…Words in the communal category included adjectives such as affectionate, helpful, kind, sympathetic, nurturing, tactful and agreeable, and behaviors such as helping others, taking direction well and maintaining relationships. Agentic adjectives included words such as confident, aggressive, ambitious, dominant, forceful, independent, daring, outspoken and intellectual, and behaviors such as speaking assertively, influencing others and initiating tasks.

Furthermore there was more hesitancy in the reference letters written for a woman, who “might make an excellent leader,” while men were said to be excellent leaders.

I’d be interested to know whether the age of the letter writers and letter readers is a factor. I can only hope that the next generation won’t see men and women in such stereotypical terms, and that the value of niceness will go up. Why should daring be at the expense of cooperation and connection?

I so dislike this whole dog eat dog approach. I imagine that it’s self-perpetuating. Those of a certain mind-set choose others like themselves, maintaining a culture where adversarial relations are assumed to be normal and desirable. But I do question it, in academia and society in general. It doesn’t have to be either/or. It can be and-and.

Full story here.

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8 responses

  1. Very interesting. I also think it can be and-and. I hope this is a generational thing.

  2. I hate to say it, but I am in complete agreement with these professors. At Cambridge, my senior colleague was completely swayed by arrogant and daring intellectual brilliance. We were often trying to choose candidates who would make good teachers for the first years, but he would completely forget this in the moment and go for someone who would scare the living daylights out of them. While academia is based on an intellectual meritocracy, I daresay nothing much will change – because if it’s not based on that, what happens then? But it’s true – you desperately need good teaching, coaching and diplomacy skills as well.

  3. Hmmm … a professor described me a “tactful” once in a recommendation letter; I didn’t think much of it at the time, but it takes on a new meaning now.

  4. In all the years I taught it seemed to me to be a difficult thing, fulfilling the obligations of a department. I mean there is the money issue, and squeezing money from Boards and other such groups is so much easier if you can point to a famous (usually arrogant) faculty member who has put your school’s name in the public eye and say “See! This is why we deserve more money.” Then there’s the teaching function which is often so completely at odds with the “impress the Board” function, just as litlove points out in her comment. Really I never could see a way out of the difficulty given the way tertiary education is financed. It’s depressing really.

    1. Maybe that’s the crux of the problem, Mary, the financing.

  5. Pete, it will be interesting to see whether the status quo is maintained.

    Litlove, what makes for intellectual merit is still a matter for debate. In China for centuries it was a mastery of allusion and knowledge of the classics. Why not other qualities?

    Dorothy, yes, I would have thought it a commendable thing to be described as tactful. But this study does cast a different light on it.

  6. Let’s face it you never see the headline Good, generous, kind professor boosts confidence and grades, but Eagleton grollocks Amis or Dawkins defrocks fellow-traveling Athiest would probably make it!

    1. Yes indeed–I can’t argue with that!

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