Not much is more deflating for a job candidate than a lackluster letter of recommendation from someone they respect. It’s all too common that the writer failed to capture the candidate’s best qualities.
Geneva Murray, the director of Ohio University’s Women’s Center, found in her studies that recommenders may use different language to describe the attributes of male and female candidates.
“Descriptors for men may include more affirming absolutes, where men may ‘achieve excellence’, but women may be described as, ‘She tried hard to achieve’,” Murray said.
What: “She Was Caring and Helpful”: Avoid Gendered Language in Writing Letters of Recommendation
When: Thursday, Noon-1 p.m.
Where: Baker 233
In order to counteract that, the Women’s Center and the Career and Leadership Development Center will host “She Was Caring and Helpful”: Avoid Gendered Language in Writing Letters of Recommendation on Thursday.
The workshop will give attendees the tools they’ll need to write letters of recommendation in the best ways possible, without the help of gendered language.
During the workshop, attendees will discuss trends that have been identified in research and provide sample letters for other participants to analyze.
“The goal of the workshop is for participants to be able to apply the skills they learn to their own letters,” Murray said. “So that they are supporting those that they are recommending in as best a way as they can.”
The use of gendered language in recommendation letters has been seen to negatively affect the applicant, specifically if that applicant is a woman, Murray said.
“If a recommender uses hedging in letters for women, but not for men the person reading it may see those doubt raisers as a bigger issue than what was necessarily intended by the recommender,” Murray said.
When it comes to looking at how gendered language may affect men differently, Murray notes that men are not a monolithic group, and how the purpose of the workshop is not aimed at singling out one specific group of people.
“Unconscious bias on the part of recommenders may impact them in different ways,” Murray said. “Our workshop is really geared to help people — regardless of who they are recommending — to write the letter of recommendation that accurately reflects the skills of the applicant.”
Many individuals have never been taught how to properly write a recommendation letter, so Murray hopes attendees can greatly benefit from the workshop.
“This workshop provides a gendered lens in which we can think about writing letters of recommendation in the best way possible — one that is transferable to all letters of recommendation, regardless of the gender of the applicant — but with an awareness of that gendered lens,” Murray said.
Nicole Reynolds, a women’s, gender and sexuality studies professor at OU, believes the workshop many individuals should take advantage of.
“I think it's a great idea for the Women's Center to hold this workshop,” Reynolds said. “Anyone who writes recommendation letters would benefit from being coached to recognize gendered descriptors and how detrimental they can be to an applicant.”
Kelsey Nelson, a sophomore studying marketing, recognizes how using inappropriate gender descriptors can negatively affect the way a woman especially may be perceived.
“I think if you’re writing a reference letter for someone who identifies as a woman and you state, ‘She is a hard-working girl,’ that might make an employer believe that this applicant isn’t very mature, because they weren’t referred to as a woman or a person,” Nelson said. “If you continually refer to a woman applicant in a letter as she, an employer might be biased toward women and prefer a male applicant.”
In Nelson’s experience regarding her male colleagues, she sees the way gendered language affects them differently in the real world as well.
“Gendered language affects men differently because if they are taking action and giving instructions to people, they aren’t ‘bossy,’ they’re intelligent and making correct decisions,” Nelson said.
Nelson finds having a workshop that teaches people how to avoid gendered language is one that people who plan to write recommendation letters should look into.
“It sounds like a very beneficial workshop people should take, because not everyone identifies as a certain gender, so it can be beneficial to those people because then there isn’t any bias when it comes to being hired,” Nelson said. “The workshop information will hopefully resonate with the attendees so they stop using gendered language in their everyday lives.”
There are many ways people can avoid using gendered language in writing recommendation letters as well as in real life and Nelson believes this workshop could be the first step in a positive direction.
“It’s definitely important to ask people their preferred pronouns,” Nelson said. “It’s also helpful to get to know people for themselves and their work ethic, so then letters are more about who they are as a person and less how they are as a specific gender.”