How Letters of Recommendation Can Hurt Female Job Candidates

group of female employees
Topic(s): fairness, gender, personality, 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

In a set of two studies, researchers (Madera, Hebl, & Martin, 2009) 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 downhill for the communal types when it comes to hireability.


When people did not know the gender of the applicant, the 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. 


This research underscores the large role that stereotypes can play in personnel selection and other key organizational functions. It provides a clear reminder that organizations wishing to maximize human capital and job performance should seek ways to reduce harmful stereotypes and ensure that selection and promotion decisions are based only on job-relevant factors.


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.