Nobody wants to hire someone who’s “nurturing”
Want a job in academia? Don’t be so “communal.” It seems, according to ongoing research at Rice University in Houston, Texas, that recommendation letters may be costing “affectionate” and “nurturing” women jobs and promotions at universities.
I bet that research applies just about anywhere.
According to the Rice University News & Media website, the study, funded by the National Science Foundation, and led by professor Michelle Hebl, shows that “qualities mentioned in recommendation letters for women differ sharply from those for men.” And the terminology, they say, may be costing women.
Researchers reviewed 624 letters of recommendation for 194 applicants for eight junior faculty positions at a U.S. university. “They found that letter writers conformed to traditional gender schemas when describing candidates. Female candidates were described in more communal (social or emotive) terms and male candidates in more agentic (active or assertive) terms.” (That latter one a new word for me, by the way.)
The strength of the letters was also rated, meaning the likelihood the candidate would be hired based on the letter. Names and personal pronouns were removed from the letters and researchers controlled for other variables like years of schooling etc.
“We found that being communal is not valued in academia,” said co-author Randi Martin. “The more communal characteristics mentioned, the lower the evaluation of the candidate.”
Some of the communal words in question: “Affectionate, helpful, kind, sympathetic, nurturing, tactful and agreeable, and behaviours 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 behaviours such as speaking assertively, influencing others and initiating tasks.”
OK, is this really that much of a surprise or an outrage? Unless you’re looking for a job at a kennel (petting zoo? daycare?), I can’t imagine any situation in which the words “affectionate” or “nurturing” would appeal to an employer. Even in academia, I think this is probably inappropriate.
It’s interesting that the agentic (ha! Look, I used it in a sentence) qualities were viewed more positively, though (as I assume they were). Who’d have thought the academic field was big on dominance and forcefulness?
A follow-up study, funded by the National Institutes of Health, is under way and includes applicants for faculty and research positions at medical schools.
“Communal characteristics mediate the relationship between gender and hiring decisions in academia, which suggests that gender norm stereotypes can influence hireability ratings of applicants,” Martin said.
“Subtle gender discrimination continues to be rampant,” Hebl said. “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.”
In other words, when someone asks you to write them a letter of recommendation, don’t call them “sympathetic” and “agreeable.”
I’m guessing that’s not the intended takeaway here. But it’s what I’m going with. Is there something I’m not getting?