A woman standing and a man on a platform

Female applicants are less likely to be described as “brilliant,” “trailblazer,” or “one of the best students I’ve ever had,” according to a study of recommendation letters for highly selective geoscience postdoctoral fellowships.

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Recommendation letters reflect gender bias

Female geoscientists are less likely to be described as excelling beyond other students than their male counterparts are, according to a study of recommendation letters for highly selective postdoctoral fellowships published today in Nature Geoscience. The letters written for female applicants typically praised them as solid scientists doing good work, using comments such as “highly intelligent” and “very knowledgeable,” but were less likely to set the applicant apart from the others. The findings support the idea that gender bias exists unconsciously, says Kuheli Dutt, assistant director of academic affairs and diversity at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University and lead author of the study, and suggest that “women are potentially disadvantaged from the beginning of their careers.”

The study’s authors looked at 1224 letters submitted from around the world for geoscience postdoctoral fellowships at the observatory. (The faculty gender gap is particularly noticeable in the geosciences: Women make up 40% of doctoral degree holders but less than 10% of the faculty.) The researchers found that male applicants were more likely than female applicants to receive “excellent” letters, characterized by comments such as “brilliant scientist,” “trailblazer,” and “one of the best students I’ve ever had.” The tone of the letter was not affected by the writer’s gender, reaffirming that both male and female evaluators have gender biases that disadvantage women when they are pursuing traditionally male-dominated roles, says Molly Carnes, a professor at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and co-director of the Women in Science and Engineering Leadership Institute, who was not involved in the study.

The researchers, however, did not consider the applicants’ qualifications. Wendy Williams, a professor of human development at Cornell University, questions whether conclusions about gender bias can be drawn without such information. “The women applying could have been stronger than the men, comparable to them, or weaker,” Williams says, “[so] we cannot determine if the letters are fair or biased.” Dutt acknowledges this limitation of the study but argues that “it’s highly unlikely that there is a systemic deficit in the quality of just the female applicants worldwide.”

This study adds to a body of previous work showing that implicit bias—biases that exist unconsciously but can nonetheless affect our daily actions and decisions—can manifest in recommendation letters through the writers’ language. Recommendation letters for women applying to faculty positions at one U.S. university, for example, tended to describe relationship-building characteristics—writers used words such as “nurturing” and “caring”—more often than action-oriented characteristics such as “confident,” “assertive,” and “intellectual.” The problem is not that traits more frequently attributed to women are undesirable, Dutt says, but leadership ability is associated with excelling in science, and women “don’t get described in the same way that pertains to scientific leadership.”

The point of the current study is not to blame or criticize people for having unconscious gender biases, Dutt emphasizes, but to bring awareness to the issue. “The study uncovers a very real problem,” she says, “and we need to use the results of this study and studies like this to open up meaningful dialogue and conversations on implicit bias.” The fix isn’t obvious, but Carnes notes that approaching biases as a habit to break can work.

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