Gender and Letters of Recommendation for Academia: Agentic and Communal Differences

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The problem of pipeline shrinkage for women in academia is a well-known and researched phenomenon. This phenomenon refers to the fact that women enter graduate school at about the same rate as do men, but women are less likely to enter and succeed in academia at the same rate as their male counterparts, particularly in science and engineering disciplines. In fact, the National Science Foundation (2008) has reported that women comprise about 29% of science and engineer- ing faculty at 4-year colleges and universities and comprise only 18% of full professors. One contributing factor to this gender disparity may be gender differences in letters of recommendation. In particular, there is little research that addresses whether letters of recommendation for academia are written differently for men and women and whether potential differences influence selection decisions in academia. The present study addresses this issue.

The focus on letters of recommendation is justified because they are an important and commonly used selection tool that provides information on applicants’ past performance and qualifications, confirms or supplements information provided by applicants, and describes applicants’ motivation. In fact, Cascio and Aguinis (2004) stated, “the fact is, decisions are made on the basis of letters of recommendations” . In particular, they have been found to be among the most important criterion used to screen and evaluate applicants for internships, graduate programs , medical schools , military training programs, and psychology faculty positions. 

The studies presented in the current article replicate and extend past research by showing (a) that there are gender differences in letters of recommendation—women are described as more com- munal and less agentic than are men (Study 1)—and (b) that communal characteristics have a negative relationship with hiring decisions in academia (Study 2). These results can be understood within the social role theory framework (Eagly et al., 2000). The data suggest that female applicants are described in accordance with communal gender norms, which are both descriptive and prescriptive (Eagly et al., 2000; Heilman et al., 1995). In addition, the results suggest that there is a lack of fit between the attributes of communality and the work role of academia. Such findings are particularly important because letters of recommendation are im- portant and commonly used selection tools (Cascio & Aguinis, 2004; Sheehan et al., 1998).

This research not only has important implications for women in academia but also for women in management and leadership roles. A large body of research suggests that communality is not per- ceived to be congruent with leadership and managerial jobs (e.g., Eagly & Johannesen-Schmidt, 2001; Eagly & Karau, 2002; Hei- lman, 2001). In particular, Heilman’s (2001) lack of fit model, suggests that “fit-derived performance expectations, whether positive or negative, can profoundly affect evaluation processes” (p. 660). Thus, for occupations in which agency is linked to success or perceived as more important than communality, the perception of lack of fit between a female applicant and the job requirements can arise as a result of women being described as more communal and less agentic than men. It is important to take caution, however, because letters of recommendation are not heavily weighted in some organizations and occupations. 

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