A (female) friend of mine recently sent me an article that made my blood proverbially boil. Its title: Do letters of recommendation actually hurt women when it comes to getting hired or promoted?
Interesting question, and definitely one that strikes a chord with me. Ever since I finished high school, I have trodden mostly male-dominated educational and career paths — I have been among the female minority as an undergraduate math and finance major, as a New York investment banker, as a tech entrepreneur, and currently as an MBA student. It’s hard to spend 10 years sharing cubicles, conference rooms and classrooms with an overwhelmingly male population without somehow wondering what’s at work that’s keeping so many women out.
According to this article, which cites ongoing research at Rice University, language might be the problem.
“Funded by the National Science Foundation, Rice University professors Michelle Hebl and Randi Martin and graduate student Juan Madera, now an assistant professor at the University of Houston, reviewed 624 letters of recommendation for 194 applicants for eight junior faculty positions at a U.S. university. They found that letter writers conformed to traditional gender schemas when describing candidates. Female candidates were described in more communal (social or emotive) terms and male candidates in more agentic (active or assertive) terms.“
“Words in the communal category included adjectives such as affectionate, helpful, kind, sympathetic, nurturing, tactful and agreeable, and behaviors such as helping others, taking direction well and maintaining relationships. Agentic adjectives included words such as confident, aggressive, ambitious, dominant, forceful, independent, daring, outspoken and intellectual, and behaviors such as speaking assertively, influencing others and initiating tasks.”
The real issue at work, in the words of Hebl, is that “communality is not perceived to be congruent with leadership and managerial jobs.” In other words, those qualities most often used in an effort to describe women in a positive light, end up evoking qualities of scant value within a professional context.
And yes, my blood is indeed proverbially boiling as I write this, because this research so clearly highlights the complex ways in which gender discrimination and language politics hinder the professional advancement of women.
As I see it, there are three distinct issues at work here. Note my use of the word “we.” This is motivated by a desire to remain agnostic as to the agents of gender discrimination. It would be easy to point fingers, but frankly I think that we are all collectively to some degree at fault.
1. We are still uncomfortable with female leadership and assertiveness
If leadership qualities seem so disproportionately lacking in female recommendation letters, then they are either truly lacking among the female population or simply under-reported. Both may be true, and they are two symptoms of the same ailment. With regard to the lack of leadership among women: I am somewhat embarrassed to admit this — but as a woman it’s much easier to be nurturing and consensus-building than aggressive and a leader in the traditional sense. People just respond to it better. I used to do the aggressive thing, but I discovered that I got my way more easily when I took a stance more attuned to everyone’s assumptions of me and what my role should be as a woman. Needless to say — I realize I may be part of the problem, but more on that below. With regard to the under-reporting of leadership among women, the problem is that when women do display traditional leadership qualities we either discount them or struggle to properly characterize them. Again, we are more comfortable perceiving, and therefore describing, women as nurturing than as powerful.
2. We undervalue social and community-building skills
The other issue here is that highlighting social and community-building skills among women hurts their employment prospects. This is itself is a huge problem. Underlying it is the assumption that aggression and assertiveness are more valuable within an organization than sensitivity, consensus-building and social qualities. I think that’s nonsense. I mentioned above how I discovered, in the course of my career, that consensus building is a more effective persuasion tool than force or traditional assertiveness. There is a dark side to this (that people respond better to women when they conform to gender norms), but there is also a bright side: these socially oriented qualities are truly effective in organizational settings. The ability to lead by uniting and inspiring is an invaluable skill, and it lies within the so-called “feminine” qualities that we so easily discount. Beating gender discrimination should be not about proving that there are no differences between women and men, but about seeing the value that each individual, regardless of gender, brings to the table, and how each can constitute its own form of leadership.
3. We erroneously view leadership and community-building as diametrically opposed
This final point is about semantics but it’s incredibly important. Implicit in the article is a specific view of the world and of the meaning of “leadership”: one where the traditional male and female archetypes are opposite ends of a one-dimensional scale of leadership. On the one side: the nurturer, consensus-builder, mother and follower. On the other side: the aggressor, decider, father and leader. This is a limited and flawed view of the world. Leadership is not a quality — it’s an action, an outcome. It’s its own dimension, entirely separate from the other qualities described above. Combined they form a matrix of qualities and actions.
The key here is that people — both men and women — exist within all four quadrants of the matrix. There are assertive followers just as there are nurturing leaders — neither is an oxymoron. Furthermore, no quadrant is better than the others — they are just different and serve different roles within human organizations.
Once we truly understand this third point, we can also overcome the first two roots of the sort of gender discrimination observed by the researchers at Rice University. We will more naturally accept female leadership because it won’t seem to go against our traditional understanding of female qualities — however flawed or gender-normative those may be. And we will learn to see the organizational and leadership value of a broader range of personality traits and skills, not just those that we have traditionally associated with leadership.
At that point, letters of recommendation should no longer hinder the career advancement of women, and maybe we’ll see more gender equality in business.
Image source: Andrew Becraft.