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Damning With Praise

Note to women: Beware of the glowing letter of recommendation because even the most upbeat reference could work against you.

iStock: Leo Espinosa

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The study: "Gender and Letters of Recommendation for Academia," by Juan Madera, University of Houston; and Michelle Hebl and Randi Martin, Rice University; Journal of Applied Psychology.

The finding: Gender stereotyping in recommendation letters may hurt women's job prospects. Colleagues tend to praise women's skills in communicating and building relationships. Men tend to be valued for independence and achievement, which are viewed more positively by hiring managers.

The process: Researchers studied 624 recommendation letters for junior faculty positions at a university. They compared the frequency of relationship-related words with the frequency of action-related words. Then, all names and gender pronouns were removed, and six professors rated the letters.

Intriguing discovery: Men's attitudes don't account for the difference in emphasis. In fact, male writers were more likely than female writers to point out accomplishments in letters for female applicants.

The takeaway: Hiring managers need to be aware of the different ways in which men and women are perceived and described in letters of recommendation and take subtle biases into account when making hiring decisions.




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