Are Femininity and Letters of Recommendation at Odds?

Topic: Gender, Selection
Publication: Journal of Applied Psychology
Article: Gender and Letters of Recommendation for Academia: Agentic and Communal Differences
Authors: J. M. Madera, M. R. Hebl, & R. C. Martin
Reviewed By: Katie Bachman

To answer the question posed in the title: yes, they are. In a set of two studies, researchers have shown that women tend to be described with communal terms in letters of recommendation, while men tend to be described in agentic terms. Communal in this sense means using words like “helpful,” “kind,” and “agreeable.” Agentic refers to words like “assertive,” “confident,” and “independent.” Both sets of terms can be highly positive—we need both kinds of people—but it all goes down hill for the communal types when it comes to hireability.

When people did not know the gender of the applicant, those applicants described in communal terms were deemed less hireable by subject matter experts (SMEs). Agentic terms didn’t really make a difference in the hireability of an applicant. Interestingly, men writing recommendations for women described them in more agentic terms than did women writing recommendations for women. So ladies, get those men writing your letters, especially if you’ve got a tendency to be nice! The meek shall not inherit the Earth. Assertiveness wins the day (go figure). At least, that seems to be the case with letters of recommendation.

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, 1591-1599.