Don’t call me hard-working – it’s sexist

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business_man_and_woman_1600_wht_5662A Cambridge don thinks calling women “hard-working” or “enthusiastic” is sexist.

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.


You’ve got to hand it to the French

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hands_reached_out_1600_wht_16231when it comes to recruitment methods. They persisted with graphology when every right-thinking person agreed it was a nonsense with no scientific evidence that it worked.

Having said that it seems to be becoming popular again according to a recent article in the Guardian, and not just in France where 75% of companies admit to using it. For psychologists like me it’s up there with corporate psychics advising on who to hire or fire.

But I digress because the latest fad is hand-reading!

Jean de Bony is a French consultant who claims that he can tell if you are a born leader by looking at your hand and fingerprints. Have you got a broad palm, long finger-nails, arches, spirals or loops in your fingerprints? Are your hands cold, warm, or moist? Just to give one example he claims that people with cold, moist hands are unsuited to positions of responsibility.

He claims to have analysed 10,000 hands, including those of 300 famous people including Nicholas Sarkozy and Charlotte Rampling, to help him devise his system which he calls biotypologie and which he claims gives him an insight into our temperament. However he has never published his studies so they have never been tested scientifically.

In fact at one point in the 1980s he had to leave the country after outrage at his theory which critics claimed was similar to Hitler’s approach to genetics. Facing death threats he fled to Canada and when he later returned he was welcomed back by businesses who wanted him to help on hiring and retention decisions.

The fact that large insurance companies and energy suppliers made decisions based on fingerprint patterns and warm hands is amazing. He has since moved on to running seminars for well-known fashion houses, construction companies, and hotel groups. He says he has never met a business leader with cold wet hands as if that proves his theory.

41-fNSYvklL._AA160_He has a new book out called Ce Que Révelent Vos Mains (what your hands reveal). He rejects the accusation that he is promoting a modern version of palmistry which he claims is for charlatans. He says his method is a factual assessment of the present and is something “I wanted to create … that was accessible and universal and that can be reproduced”.

If you want something for your next party you could try it out as long as you don’t take it too seriously. Back in the 1970s I had similar fun with the Lüscher colour test although it has a longer pedigree and its developer better scientific credentials than Monsieur de Bony.


For more information about graphology’s lack of validity see these two sources: 

The CIPD cite Pilbream & Corbidge (2006) who rate the predictive validity of graphology alongside astrology as 0.0.

The British Psychological Society (BPS) has also examined its use in selection and found no evidence to support its use.