Skip to navigationSkip to content

A guide to writing recommendation letters that aren’t sexist

Alejandro Escamilla/Unsplash
Think before you write.
Published This article is more than 2 years old.

Sexism in the workplace can start long before the job has even begun.

Specifically, during the writing of reference letters. Such was the impetus for a flyer published by the University of Arizona’s Commission on the Status of Women. It breaks down the unconscious traps many professors fall into when commending the accomplishments of a great student in writing.

Several studies have shows that both men and women unwittingly write less flattering letters for women than for men. Letters written for women are often shorter, lack basic important features, and use language that is focused on stereotypically communal and feminine qualities like “caring” and “compassionate.” Letters lauding men focus more on accomplishments; the contrast can impact a candidate’s shot at landing a job.

“Subtle gender discrimination continues to be rampant,” said Michelle Hebl, a professor at Rice University who has studied the phenomenon. “And it’s important to acknowledge this because you cannot remediate discrimination until you are first aware of it. Our and other research shows that even small differences—and in our study, the seemingly innocuous choice of words—can act to create disparity over time and experiences.”

As the University of Arizona’s advice suggests, glowing words can still ultimately undermine a student’s chances. Here are the traps it says to avoid:

Avoid nurturing language

Letters for women are more likely to use words like “helpful” and “nurturing,” which are positive qualities, but don’t suggest the boldness and ownership of words more often used for men, like ”confident,” “ambitious” and “independent.”

Downplay effort—focus on impact

Letters for men typically include references to their achievements, including their research, hard skills, and the tangible impact of their work. Women’s recommendations, however, are 50% more likely to include adjectives that describe the amount of effort a woman puts in, rather than her ability. For example, the term “hard-working” doesn’t tell the reader how good a woman is at something.

Steer clear of personal life

Women’s letters of recommendation were seven times more likely to mention aspects of the candidate’s personal life. That information, while often an important factor in anyone’s work life, can detract attention from what they accomplished at work. Also, unless using a first name is standard in your field, use formal titles and surnames for both genders.

Don’t leave things out

Letters for men are about 16% longer than those for women, so it’s worth considering if there’s more to say about a woman’s accomplishments than what she’s thought to describe. In academia, men’s reference letters, for example, are four times more likely to mention what they have published and where it appeared.

📬 Kick off each morning with coffee and the Daily Brief (BYO coffee).

By providing your email, you agree to the Quartz Privacy Policy.