You are reading a letter of recommendation that praises a candidate for a faculty job as being "caring," "sensitive," "compassionate," or a "supportive colleague." Whom do you picture?
New research suggests that to faculty search committees, such words probably conjure up a woman -- and probably a candidate who doesn't get the job. The scholars who conducted the research believe they may have pinpointed one reason for the "leaky pipeline" that frustrates so many academics, who see that the percentage of women in senior faculty jobs continues to lag the percentage of those in junior positions and that the share in junior positions continues to lag those earning doctorates.
The research is based on a content analysis of 624 letters of recommendation submitted on behalf of 194 applicants for eight junior faculty positions at an unidentified research university. The study found patterns in which different kinds of words were more likely to be used to describe women, while other words were more often used to describe men.
Sadly, while the results are not surprising - the caring, sensitive, compassionate, and supportive candidate is the one who does not become your colleague - the study has me thinking about how I characterize my colleagues and my students, particularly as I find myself writing recommendation letters for jobs and graduate schools.
I suppose that I might rephrase "collegiality" and "consensus building" as "professionalism" and "leadership." However. I hate that the advice is to "stay away from communal words, whether writing on behalf of men or women."
Cue Elvis Costello: "What's so funny about peace, love, and understanding?"
A comment on the comments on Inside Higher Ed:
Predictably, there are comments that this is not really "about" gender, as in women and men, because men now have as equally hard a time being hired.
To which I must retort: How about entertaining the idea that "gender" is not really only about women and men? That it might be about arrangements of social relationships - significantly, inequalities - that both reflect and inflect ideas and practices of "women" and "men" in the first place?
One of the comments called attention to the fact that the so-called communal words refer to ideas that academia has celebrated as its values - and the so-called agentive words refer to ideas that "private enterprise" celebrates.
Unfortunately, I think there is a relationship between the devaluing of academic values and the privileging of corporate values in academia / higher ed - and the gendering of academia as communal / female and private enterprise as agentive / male.
On the bright side: Tina Fey was awarded the Mark Twain Prize for Humor - only the third woman to receive it, and at 40, the youngest ever recipient. Hooray for funny, smart, female, and 40! That is for all my gal pals :)