Writing Equitable Reference Letters

We are taking a moment to reiterate the importance of recognizing and confronting implicit biases while writing letters of recommendation. Essentially all of us have some level of implicit bias; the unintentional association of certain traits with a group of people [1]. Studies have shown that in academia implicit biases can manifest in letters of reference for minority students [2].

Another particular issue to look out for is the use of “grindstone” words versus “ability” words[3]. In this study based on letters written for STEM job applicants, language describing male applicants skewed toward their skills and talents while that for females tended to emphasize effort and hardwork. While both talent and dedication are important traits for a successful scientist, descriptions of skill stand out more in an application.

It is important to consider these issues as you both write and  letters of reference. Some more helpful tips can be found here [4].

 [1] If you want to take a test on gender-career or other forms of implicit biases, please follow this link to the Implicit Project, an on-going research collaboration that includes the University of Virginia, University of Washington, and University of Florida.

[2] http://www.nature.com/ngeo/journal/v9/n11/full/ngeo2819.html

  http://www.pnas.org/content/109/41/16474.full

[3] https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11199-007-9291-4

[4] https://feministphilosophers.files.wordpress.com/2015/11/arizona.jpg