Dame Athene Donald who is a master of Churchill College (isn’t that a bit sexist?) and a professor of experimental physics says references are often unintentionally written in a “gendered way” with academics more likely to describe women applying for research posts or fellowships as “hard-working” or “team players“.
She thinks this fails to communicate just how good female applicants are unlike when using words like “excellent“, “driven” or “outstanding” which apparently are often reserved for males.
She said “If letter writers just sit down and write the first adjectives that come into their heads to describe men and women, the words may be poles apart even if the subjects of the letters are indistinguishable in ability”.
“Do you really mean that your star PhD student is hard-working and conscientious or was the message you wanted to convey that she was outstanding, goes the extra mile, and always exceeds your expectations about what is possible, demonstrating great originality en route? There is an enormous difference in the impact of the two descriptions“.
She believes that this clearly can lead to a significant detriment to the woman’s progression, even if without a sexist intent.
Stanford University analysed performance reviews in technology firms and found that women’s evaluations contained almost twice as much language about their communal or nurturing style using words such as “helpful” or “dedicated”.
Men’s reviews on the other hand contained twice as many references to their technical expertise and vision.
Why is this surprising? Do people like Dame Donald think men and women actually behave the same at work? Of course there is an overlap but there is enough research which shows that women respond to stress differently, are often better at soft skills than men, can improve teams, and may be more emotionally intelligent to boot.
Professor Donald suggested that people writing references should use a gender bias calculator website that highlights words in texts that may be received as gendered. She also calls for training for selection panels – something most organisations have been doing for decades (my colleague and I introduced this into an NHS Trust back in the 1990s). I think she means well if a little too PC but maybe a bit out of touch with the real world.
Professor Alan Smithers, director of the centre for education at Buckingham University disagrees with her. He is quoted as saying “How do we know that academics using these words have unconscious bias? being a team player and hard worker are very important. It is perfectly possible that candidates do have these strengths and it is important that a referee is able to say so”
Common sense from one academic at least. And read what happened when a journalist investigated this issue for himself.