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.