When someone asks you to write a recommendation letter or serve as a reference, it’s because they believe that what you have to say about them will help their chances at landing that job, receiving that fellowship, or being accepted into that program. And most likely, if you said yes, it’s because you believe in their candidacy and genuinely want to help them succeed.
But you may, perhaps without realizing it, be doing some of them a disservice. A recent study found that both male and female recommenders are tripping up the women they recommend more often than the men with what researchers call “doubt raisers.”
Doubt raisers are comments that express blatant negativity (such as, “It’s true that she does not have much previous workplace experience”), “faint praise” (a backhanded compliment like, “She needs only minimal supervision”), or hedges (for example, “She’s not the best statistician, but she is a good one”).
And they’re much more likely to be found in letters written for women than those for men, even though the researchers found no differences in actual productivity, based on indicators like courses taught, papers published, or grants received (this particular research looked at letters written for candidates for associate professor positions).
In a context where “most will expect a positive glowing letter...a doubt raiser really stands out,” says Juan Madera, one of the researchers from the University of Houston. One experiment proved that even a single doubt raiser was enough to lower an applicant’s rating among evaluators. “On the surface…it doesn’t sound like a big deal, but it’s potentially limiting the number of women who make it to the next step.”
On the surface…it doesn’t sound like a big deal, but it’s potentially limiting the number of women who make it to the next step.
A previous set of studies by Madera and some of the same colleagues showed that letter writers tend to describe women applying for faculty positions in a psychology department in more “communal terms,” such as “warm” and “nurturing,” which ended up hurting their chances at being hired, while men applying for the same jobs were more likely to get “agentic terms,” such as “ambitious” and “self-confident.”
Other research—also focused on recommendation letters written for candidates for faculty positions in medicine as well as chemistry and biochemistry—has found longer letters and more “standout adjectives” for men. One study that looked specifically at letters for applicants for postdoctoral fellowships in geoscience found that “women are significantly less likely to receive excellent recommendation letters than their male counterparts at a critical juncture in their career.”
As Madera notes, academia is generally perceived as a relatively progressive and liberal environment. If it’s happening there, he says, it wouldn’t be surprising to see similar trends in recommendation letters and references in other industries. What’s more, he emphasizes that this is just one part of the process. “Compound that with the next steps where there’s other biases,” he says, and a tiny doubt raiser becomes just one of a slew of ways women are put at a disadvantage.
When someone asks you to write them a recommendation letter or speak on their behalf as a reference, or even if you’re just writing an informal email endorsement—and your goal is to help them wholeheartedly—make sure you’re not undermining your efforts and theirs.
Avoid Doubt Raisers
Did you write that “even though she hasn’t had formal training in [something], she’s an impressive [role]”? Delete that first half of the sentence and just focus on why the person is impressive and a great fit for the position they’re applying for.
“If the person has the experience and can demonstrate it, it doesn’t matter,” says Muse career coach and HR executive Angela Smith.
The same goes for any other doubt raisers. Even if the rest of your letter is positive, that one line could be the difference between the “move forward” pile and the rejection pile.
Focus on Accomplishments and Impact
Focus on the skills and accomplishments that make the candidate a good fit for this particular role, “without feeling the need to qualify,” Smith says. Think “she can do this, she has done this, this is what she’s accomplished,” rather than “she overcame this” or “she has three kids at home and still did this.” Because “at the end of the day none of that matters,” Smith says.
Jennifer Brown, CEO and founder of Jennifer Brown Consulting, a strategic leadership and diversity consulting firm, says that even the verbs you choose are significant, and urges people to use action-oriented ones, such as “she achieved, accomplished, innovated, created, drove XYZ result.”
Use action-oriented verbs, such as ‘she achieved, accomplished, innovated, created, drove XYZ result.’
And while you’re at it, make sure you provide specific examples, says Lauren Roberts, Associate Director of Talent Acquisition here at The Muse. For example, you might say: “[Candidate] was the top performing sales rep on my team. Last year she exceeded quarterly targets by 15% and closed our largest deal to date bringing in [dollar amount] in new business revenue.”
Take a close look at the job or program description to see which kinds of skills, accomplishments, and examples are most relevant. If you’re getting on the phone with a hiring manager for a reference call, says Roberts, and “you’re not sure what aspects of the person’s experience or skill set to talk about, ask the recruiter or hiring manager you’re speaking with to provide more clarity on the role the candidate is being considered for so you can make sure your feedback is relevant.”
Tie Soft Skills to the Role
None of this is to say that you shouldn’t also laud a candidate’s soft skills, but be sure you’re intentional about it, explaining how they’d use those skills to succeed in their new role.
For example, Roberts says, you might tell the hiring manager that the candidate “is skilled at building relationships and fearless about picking up the phone and having difficult conversations. This has been an asset in client-facing roles where she’s talking to clients regularly, dealing with client churn, and growing her book of business.”
Understand the Biases
Madera says letter writers should pay close attention to how they’re describing a candidate and whether the language they’re using hews too much to gender stereotypes. “Catch yourself,” he says. “If I already said [someone is] kind and agreeable, why do I keep repeating myself?”
Brown echoes his thoughts. “Make sure you’re not describing them in a gender normative way,” she says. “I hate that that’s true,” she adds, but for now “the business world is a male-dominated world, so the language of that world is more male normative.” And though companies across the board should value all kinds of characteristics, including the so-called communal ones, “we’re just not there yet.”
Moreover, in order to be more aware of their own blind spots, Brown says recommenders and references (and the people on the other side, for that matter), should educate themselves on the obstacles women, people of color, and other historically underrepresented groups face. Look at the most recent report from McKinsey & Company and LeanIn.Org (or read about seven of the most striking facts about the state of women in the workplace we found in it), for example, and do some more reading, especially if you don’t belong to one of those groups yourself.
A better understanding of the system might help you realize just how important and impactful your words can be, for better or worse.
Counteract Ingrained Behaviors
If you read up on biases in the workplace, you might also encounter additional factors that make your recommendation all the more important. For example, there’s the frequently cited finding that women tend to apply only if they feel they meet 100% of required qualifications for a job, while men will go for it at 60% of the requirements.
Then there’s the language women tend to use as they go about their work and when they describe themselves. In a Wall Street Journal essay, Joanne Lipman explained that “women are also more likely to add qualifiers (‘I’m not sure, but…’) and apologies (‘I’m sorry to interrupt, but…’). When complimented on her work, a woman is more likely to downplay it, saying she was ‘lucky.’”
You’ve got to overcorrect, you can’t just equalize... You have to make an intentional point to describe a female candidate even in ways she wouldn’t describe herself.
If women are similarly minimizing their accomplishments during the job search process, as their recommender, you might want to go out of your way to counteract that. “You’ve got to overcorrect, you can’t just equalize,” Brown says. “You have to make an intentional point to describe a female candidate even in ways she wouldn’t describe herself.”
Talk to the Person You’re Recommending
When someone turns to you as a recommender or reference, it’s also a great opportunity to have a career conversation with them, Brown says. You can ask them whether they want you to highlight work they’ve done on diversity initiatives, employee resource groups, or informal mentoring, for example, as well as get a better sense for what skills and accomplishments you can emphasize.
Sometimes candidates need to be encouraged a bit to be bolder... Part of being an older, more experienced person in someone’s life is to kick them in the butt sometimes.
“Speak to the person you’re recommending before you do it to get a sense for how they’d like to present themselves, and coach them a bit in thinking bigger in how they describe specific achievements,” she says. “Sometimes candidates need to be encouraged a bit to be bolder,” she adds, and “part of being an older, more experienced person in someone’s life is to kick them in the butt sometimes.”
And if you’re on the other side, reading recommendation letters or calling references, keep all this in mind, too. Just because someone has used a doubt raiser doesn’t mean the candidate they’re discussing is less qualified for the role.
Similarly, remember that women and especially women of color tend to have less access to senior leaders and executives and consider that context before making hasty comparisons with other candidates who have people in power advocating for them.
Sometimes fighting bias just means chipping away one by one at the small habits and factors that combine to set some people back behind others. And you can make a difference just by being a little bit more mindful the next time you’re on any side of a recommendation or reference.