Joan Steitz, distinguished molecular biologist at Yale, was quote in an article about women in the sciences that I recently found. In the article, she discusses a study of reference letters written for female applicants for academic positions. They were found to be systematically different from those written for men in terms of the absence of basic information, the percentage of negative language, and the groupings of possessive phrases (e.g. “her training”, “her application”; as opposed to “his research”, “his skills”, and “his career”).
The greatest differences ….. were in the numbers of references to “her personal life” and “his career”. What is so interesting about this is how frequently the people who write reference letters want to do the right thing for the applicant and are no doubt unaware of the bias they exhibit when they sit down to write something to help a colleague. Have you ever had a reference letter make mention of something you thought inappropriate?