Study claims expertise, assertiveness are 'masculine traits'

The authors of a new study suggest that “masculine traits” give male professors an advantage over their female colleagues when it comes to letters of recommendation.

The study, “Raising Doubt in Letters of Recommendation for Academia: Gender Differences and Their Impact,” was published in the Journal of Business and Psychology by a team of researchers led by University of Houston Professor Juan Madera.

To gain a deeper understanding of gender bias in academia, Madera and his colleagues obtained 624 authentic letters of recommendation written for 174 professors and reviewed them for the presence of “doubt raisers.” 

These doubt raisers—described as “phrases or statements that question an applicant’s aptness for a job”—included phrases such as “somewhat challenging personality,” “might make a good colleague,” and “in light of difficulties…performance was impressive.” 

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Just as the researchers hypothesized, more doubt was conveyed in letters of recommendation for women. But only slightly. 

A review of the research findings indicates that 46 percent of letters for female professors contained no doubt raisers, whereas 49 percent of letters for male professors were free of such vacillations.

Despite this small difference, the researchers nevertheless concluded that recommendation letters are a vector of gender bias in academia. 

“Our studies show how bias in the letter-writing process can be propagated, even if evaluators do not necessarily display overt gender biases,” the team concluded. “The differences in word choice may seem negligible, but in fact, as our data show, doubt raisers have discernible penalties for women in academia.”

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The researchers suggest that this disparity, though small, may be due to a conflict between the “masculine norms” of academia and women’s socialization under patriarchy. 

“Responsibilities of academics have been based historically on masculine traits, such as being assertive, competitive, authoritative, independent, and experts in their field,” the researchers claim. 

“All of these traits are tied to agency, which are a set of traits that men, but not women, are expected to hold,” they add. “Women, in contrast, are expected to be communal, which includes being concerned with the welfare of other people, affectionate, kind, sensitive, and nurturing.”

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Reached by Campus Reform, lead author Juan Madera affirmed his belief that letters of recommendation are biased against women due to the “norms of masculinity” in academia, such as “being independent, assertive, confident, and strong-willed.” 

“The responsibilities of many academic departments may be based on norms of masculinity,” he said. “So what we found is that the letters for women contained more doubt raisers than did letters for men.”

Campus Reform asked Madera if it is possible that instead of letter writers being biased against women, that female professors actually display less assertiveness and confidence than their male counterparts, but he did not respond. 

Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @Toni_Airaksinen