Women's League

Jan 13 2011 Published by under letter of reference, sexism

Sent by a reader, from a recent letter of recommendation for a candidate for a faculty position:

[the applicant] is in the same league as other top female graduates [from this department]

But how does she compare to people with the same hair color? eye color? height? weight? religion? race? Surely these are as relevant as classifying by gender in a letter of recommendation for a faculty position.

The reader who sent the excerpt notes that the writer of the letter is male and in his early-mid 40's. That puts him in the same league as other top sexist letter-writers of older generations.

The letter-writer may have been trying to compliment the woman in question, or he may have been trying to signal that she isn't actually as good as the top male graduates from that department. If the latter, he probably could have found a better way to do that.

My question is:

Is someone who would write the above statement in a reference letter -- no matter what their motivation -- capable of making a fair evaluation of a female doctoral recipient, or does the very act of writing something like that in a letter of reference indicate bias?

52 responses so far

  • Toffee says:

    Well, funny thing, I wrote exactly that in a reference paper this hiring season. Pretty good chances I am this culprit, I would say (excuse my anonymous comment, then; a big fan of this blog, first time commenter).

    The reality of the situation is: my department's top two graduate in recent years ARE female. Should I have added a male's graduate name in there just to clarify to the overly-concerned reader that I am not only comparing this female candidate to other females? If the candidate and two referenced graduates all had black hair, should I have added a blond in their just to make it clear I'm not suggesting that black hair people cannot be measured against blonds?

    Reading your post made me doubt other, perhaps legitimate "discrimination" claims that are voiced by various people out there. I am saddened to hear that such interpretation might given to my letter, rather than the Occam's razor hypothesis: that these women that I listed are simply the best reference points I could think of from our department, regardless of race, color, height, weight or gender.

    Frustrated,

    A male science professor.

    • kamikaze says:

      Dear Toffee,

      I wonder -- did you write "she is just as good as Maria and Melanie", indicating that the reader knows that Maria and Melanie are really excellent and this girl is just as good?

      Or did you write "she is just as good as the other girls"? In the latter case, I don't understand why you enter gender as part of the letter. Even if it is not your intention, the reader might (and often would) interpret this as there being an ocean of men being better than all these women, which is particularly annoying if the women are really the best researchers. Why don't you just write that they are the best researchers?

    • I think that you are missing the problem with making a statement like this... possibly because you suspect that it may have been you. The problem is that it indicates or is a phrase that would trigger in someone else an unconcious bias... the fact that you have explicitly stated the gender of the applicant and the people to whom you are comparing her to indicates that this is an important factor in your endorsement... while the attempt was a compliment the effect is to throw some doubt on the meaning.

      Unconscious biases are actually a larger problem for women (and many minority groups) currently than outright bigotry... bigotry is easy to spot and correct... slight unconscious bias is incredibly difficult to recognize especially in the case of oneself, because it doesn't have large observable effects and only becomes visible as systematic when exhibited by large groups of people. As has been demonstrated several times with the case of systematic bias against woman in academia.

      In fact even if there is no unconscious bias within the author of the letter that phrase would act as a trigger to any unconscious bias in the person receiving the letter as it can easily (perhaps most easily) be taken to mean that the applicant ONLY has high standing in comparison with women colleagues. The author of the letter might understand this as being a comparison with the highest quality of colleagues one could ask for... but if the person receiving it takes the meaning to be excluding male colleagues for the reason of an even slight unconscious bias in preference towards male students this phrase will trigger that bias and take preference away from the candidate despite the fact that the author meant it has a compliment of highest order.

      If the student was a male it is unlikely that anyone would think of writing "[the applicant] is in the same league as other top male graduates" they would simply write "[the applicant] is in the same league as other top graduates". It is almost uniformly better to leave gender out of accolades... particularly where potential jobs/admissions are involved... particularly if it actually has nothing to do with the accolades or position... It shouldn't make a whit of difference if the two top students worthy of compare are female or one is male and one is female or both are male... it should only matter that the candidate in question is worthy of being included in the top. It is a small thing and in the case of one person it might not tip the scales much but when it happens many times over in small ways things add up to a systematic problem.

      I doubt you are the only person to have written this phrase and I doubt that almost anyone who has written it or something like it meant it in any way but a flattering manner... the problem is in the ways it is most easily read. Take this not as an attack but as a suggestion that if you want to highly recommend someone watch for something that sounds like a double edged compliment... or I guess more specifically for some unnecessary qualifiers on your statement unless such a qualifier is actually important to your point.

  • Is English the native language of the recommender? I've often seen somewhat strange remarks that were a result of too-literal translation from another language. If the native language grammatically marks gender, it may be difficult for the writer to mentally remove the gender marks when they are inappropriate in English.

    If the writer is a native speaker of English, then the statement does indicate a bias. If not, then who knows.

  • Science Professor says:

    Why not leave out 'female' and just say 'in the same league as other top graduates'?

  • Alex says:

    Yeah, Toffee, I don't see how adding that info on the gender of the comparable graduates in any way improves the recommendation. It seems pretty obvious that the statement weakens the recommendation.

  • wait says:

    Judging by Toffee's comment, this is not the same letter he wrote, right? The sentence SP quoted didn't give the names of the graduates, and certainly didn't give the impression that the names were given but redacted (unless SP or the corresponding reader really botched it).

  • burkescottwilliams says:

    I would say a great deal depends on the source. If, as gas station w/o pumps suggests, this is a problem with English, it should not be taken as a sign of the decline of polite civilization. If, on the other hand, we were to have it on good authority that the author does not struggle with Her Royal Britannic Majesty's English, I would hazard the guess that the author is either rather elderly, socially incompetent, or bat-shit insane. In any of these cases, I would hesitate to rush to judgement on the capability of this individual to evaluate his or her students. Sometimes people in those categories are actually quite good judges of character and ability. Sometimes they are not. My instinctual response would be to read the other two letters carefully.

  • burkescottwilliams says:

    On re-reading the original post, I think we can eliminate the possibility that the author is "of an age", and thus we can reduce the possibilities to: incompetent with English, socially inept, and barking mad. I don't think this changes my earlier suggestion of nodding politely and moving on to other letters that don't sound like a classic Randy Newmanesque "unreliable witness".

  • Kelli says:

    @Toffee,

    There is a big difference between saying what FSP quoted and saying "The candidate is as good as Person A and Person B," when A and B happen to be female.

  • gc says:

    Unless the 'top female graduates' from his dept are rather well-known to others, mentioning that they are female clearly seems to attach either a positive or negative meaning to being female.

  • Toffee says:

    Hmmm.... rollback. I did not explicitly write "female" in my letter. File under "it is late and I am a tired academic"; my apologies. This statement as quoted definitely seems unjustified and problematic.

    I did write this:

    [the applicant] is in the same league as other top graduates like [top female graduates from this department]

    So this leaves me with a question: would this version be OK? Is this version of the statement likely to be interpreted by some readers as either sexist, or as a limited gender-based comparison? In other words, can someone mistakingly read my statement as if it was equivalent to the one quoted from your reader above?

    • kamikaze says:

      Ops, I should read all comments before commenting... I think your version is perfectly fine.

    • GradStudentAbroad says:

      Toffee: I don't think that would be mistaken for the same comment. In your version, you talk about "top graduates", and if they all happen to be female, so be it (although the idea of naming specific names at all seems odd to me, too).

      The statement in the blog post is pretty clearly the grown-up equivalent to kids at school saying "she's pretty good at math ... for a girl", a statement that only makes sense if you believe girls are inherently worse at math, and also implies that actually, the girl in question is not as good as the best boys.

      • MathTT says:

        The binary comparisons (including naming names) is quite common in these letters. This is my first year on the other side of the hiring table, and I found it quite surprising as well.

  • Anon says:

    @Toffee: If the candidate and two referenced graduates all had black hair…

    If the candidate and two referenced graduates all had black hair, would you have written: “[the applicant] is in the same league as other top black-haired graduates [from this department]”? I’m gonna guess no, because the color of the candidates’ hair is clearly *irrelevant.* The fact that the candidates are female is equally irrelevant.

    Dude, you are the same age I am; you went to school with women as your peers. As a male science professor likely in a field where women are in the minority, you really should know better. But you seem to have a problem with unnecessary modifiers, which for a fan of Occam, is a little surprising:

    Reading your post made me doubt other, perhaps legitimate “discrimination” claims that are voiced by various people out there.

    Why write “perhaps legitimate”? And why is “discrimination” in quotes? I hope your “frustration” doesn’t prevent you from doing some serious introspection.

  • aaa says:

    I would say it's lucky for the candidate that the letter-writer wrote this; now his letter will be taken less seriously. Had he been just as biased but more politically correct and conveyed that he thought the candidate was not as good as the male graduates in different terms, the committee might have taken his biased views more seriously! 🙂

  • estraven says:

    I did once get a job reserved for a woman, and I also applied for another one. In such a case of course a similar statement would make perfect sense.
    Otherwise, it is gender discrimination. It stinks.
    I also don't buy the non-native speaker story. My native language is much more gendered than in English: still, even in such a language I would never write such a statement but would resort to "male and female graduates".

  • Anon says:

    @Toffee: This is Anon 2:18 – your second comment came through after I had submitted mine.

    What you actually wrote is not bad per se, but again, given the sexism that still prevails in some male-dominated quarters of science, I would probably take steps to make my meaning more unambiguous. For example, you could write:

    “[the applicant] is in the same league as other top graduates from [this department]. In recent years, our top graduates have been [top two graduates in recent years (who happen to be female)].”

    Maybe it’s a little clumsy, but better to err on this side….

  • MZ says:

    I don't get the whole "naming names" thing in recommendations. I just sent off a letter supporting tenure for an assistant professor, and deliberately ignored the instruction in my materials (geez, I don't think this is a violation of confidentiality) that "it would be of great help if you could provide us with an evaluation . . . relative to other individuals at comparable stages in their careers. In this regard, it would be very helpful if you would identify other professional by name."

    I totally disagree -- what is the point of saying that so-and-so is as good as another junior professor but not as good as somebody else? It's not like I have an unbiased sample in front of me, or that anyone reading my letter will automatically know the other people I name.

    And for the letter that is the topic of the post , saying that this person is among the top graduates is adequate, and I am not sure what I'd conclude if I were on a search committee. Alas, this kind of thing is all too common.

    • For what it's worth, the naming-names approach can be extremely helpful sometimes. Sometimes an appropriate comparison can contain an enormous amount of complicated, multidimensional information. That is, saying "Doctor Jones performs research very much in the style of Prof. Smith" can be a very informative, useful thing to say if the readers of the letter know Prof. Smith. The other major circumstance when this is a useful approach is when the letter writer has placed multiple students/postdocs into academia before, and compares with former proteges of their own. It's more informative to say "Doctor Smith is very similar to my former student, Dr. Jones, who is now a full professor at Harvard" than to say "Doctor Smith is among the best students I've ever supervised". That doesn't mean that this is always the best approach, but it no longer seems weird to me.

      • MZ says:

        Yes, I agree, and if it's done in that extremely limited fashion I'm ok with it. But that would only occur under circumstances where all of the letter-readers will understand the reference, and that's not likely to be the case for the many readers of a tenure file.

  • Luis says:

    I am sure there are ways to read that sentence as unbiased -- possibly where "female" is a qualification for the job, although I don't know any academic jobs where that is true, unless perhaps campus Women's Center director, or something of that sort.

    Another reading might be that the reference group of applicants is expected to be mostly female. In other fields there are certainly jobs where being a woman is a strong competitive advantage and/or mostly women would be expected to apply.

    Still, I am old enough and cynical enough to agree with FSP that one very likely reading is an unconsciously stupid hedge against the fact that the referent is not, in the writer's estimation, at the top of the class.

  • FemalePostDoc says:

    I would like to address Toffee's post. I am a young female post doc. I am still at a point in my career where I have letters of rec written for me all the time. I also have written letters of rec.

    On one hand, I understand that men do not want to be unfairly villified for statements that may be unintentionally offensive. On the other hand, I am dead sick of being described as, "...a good female scientist." I did not set out to be pretty good, for a woman. Absolutely every accomplishment in my career has been described by a colleague and/or a superior as being because I am a woman - not because I deserved it. The data on women in science do not back up the common perception that women are not held to as high of a standard as men - on the contrary, the data are pretty clear that women are held to a higher standard.

    There are a lot of data on gender discrimination. This includes extensive studies on sexist qualifiers added in letters of recommendation for women (that are overwhelmingly not found in LoR for men, particularly when comparing men and women with comparable qualifications); this post discusses a classic example of such. Studies on discrimination in science are incredibly depressing reading so I understand it isn't enjoyable. But given the large amount of data on the extensive discrimination faced by women in science and the wide dissemination of the results of these studies, how can you possibly not be familiar with this classic example of gender discrimination if you are a tenured faculty member? How can you write letters of recommendation if you haven't thought critically about how they will be received?

    I do not have the solution to the underrepresentation of women in science. (And I should note that blacks and hispanics face way more obstacles. It's so bad we have difficulty doing studies with statistically significant results.) But I do expect faculty - and I should note data show men and women are equal culprits - to at least try. Blatant discrimination is mostly no longer socially acceptable and mostly illegal now. It can still be difficult to get issues addressed because no one believes it happens anymore. But the vast majority of discrimination is subtle and unintentional, and this is very hard to change. It takes people accepting that they may be the culprits and trying to modify their behavior. After I read the literature, I started covering my students' names when grading so I would not be influenced by who they are. Changing behavior really hard because we scientists like to think we are objective evaluators - unfortunately the data indicate we are not.

    But we must do something. The future of science depends on it. Right now women and minorities are pushed out of science at an alarming rate. This is at least 60% of the population. How can we possibly think we have the best scientific minds when 60% of the population is evaluated on qualities other than their performance?

  • Wow. That is definitely not right. The word female is simply not relevant and should have been left out.

  • atmos_prof says:

    Toffee: what you wrote and what was in FSP's letter are totally different, yours is fine and FSP's is very much not. It is totally ok to compare individuals, in fact I think it is the most helpful thing in a reference letter (if the other individuals are likely to be known to the readers of the letters).

    A caveat would be if you had selected the other two comparison scholars purely because of their gender. This would not be good. To avoid letting your readers come away with the impression that this might have been the case, it would be good to say something like
    "[the applicant] is in the same league as [top female graduates from this department, just named without spelling out that they are female] whom I consider to be our best graduates in recent years". The way you worded it is not as clear as this but is still ok in my book.

    There has been a lot of research on how letters can be discriminatory even when not consciously intended to be, and those of us who are in positions to write lots of letters should learn what the typical mistakes are and how to avoid them. You may be doing it right without having been trained but the training is available and we should all have it.

    - another male prof in mid-40s

  • rknop says:

    As a male prof in his early 40's, I remember when us folks were supposed to be the "young people who get it" generation-- after all, 20 years ago, the issue of gender discrimination was very current. It's kind of sad to see people in their 40's not getting it.

    However, let's take a step back here, and consider at least the possibility of a charitable interpretation. And, before I do this, I will say that, yes, the fact that somebody is saying this is clearly an indication that people aren't getting it and that there's global education and attitude adjustment to be done. But, it's also possible that it's a global issue, not necessarily the case of this one individual letter-writer being a monster.

    Given that there has been a lot of focus on gender issues over the last couple of decades-- at least in my field-- there are very few people who aren't aware of them. Yes, a substantial amount of those people dismiss it (incorrectly) as a lot of sound and fury signifying nothing, or even worse as an attempt to "dumb down science for PC reasons" or some such, but at least they've heard it. It's possible that this person here is trying (and failing) to do the right thing, to promote female candidates. Or, it's possible that he's aware of (say) his own institution's attempts to improve gender balance, and knows that institutions are looking for strong and qualified female candidates. And, it may be that he thinks what he's doing here is trying to help those who want to further the cause.

    In that case, yes, education about whether this is the right thing to do is needed, and he needs to realize that this comes across as a female-belittling statement. But, it's possible that's not what he means. It may be that this guy isn't consciously a sexist, and isn't *trying* to say that female candidates are classified separately the same way (say) little-league and major-league baseball don't share the same playoffs, but rather he's trying to say that "hey, if you're looking for your strong qualified female candidate, this is the one".

    Or, maybe he's a sexist. But, at least consider the possibility of a charitable interpretation, and proceed with education rather than attack. (And, yeah, I know that sometimes there's a fine line. I think that the blog post Science Professor makes is completely on target, but I also see a tendency to assume the guy's consciuosly a sexist and that's what I caution against.) Attacking those who *want* to be allies is a good way to drive off allies. There's nothing more disheartening than feeling like you're walking on eggshells around the cause you want to help, and that the slightest unintentional misstep will garner a backlash from them.

    • Unfortunately this was a reference for a faculty job, and search committees rarely can afford the luxury of giving applicants the benefit of the doubt.

    • iGrrrl says:

      I don't assume that there is conscious bias, but rather the opposite. The problem is that any attempt at pointing out incidences of bias are *perceived* as attack because the person in question doesn't consider themselves consciously biased.

      See my comment to msphd below, and I refer you to the links.

  • drj says:

    A few years ago, I read a letter with almost exactly the same phrasing as the one FSP describes. But the letter I read was written by a senior, very successful female academic. I didn't know how to interpret it then, and I don't know how to interpret this one, either.

  • GMP says:

    @Rob Knop:

    Attacking those who *want* to be allies is a good way to drive off allies. There’s nothing more disheartening than feeling like you’re walking on eggshells around the cause you want to help, and that the slightest unintentional misstep will garner a backlash from them.

    Maybe, but that's the burden of being privileged. You have to understand that most of the time what looks like sexism (FSP's letter does) looks that way precisely because it is sexism. I know you mean well, but you have to realize that every time you try to reason why something that women perceive as sexism may not in fact be it, you are in fact among (let me quote you) "a substantial amount of those people [who] dismiss it (incorrectly) as a lot of sound and fury ". A good rule of thumb is that, when someone who is part of a non-privileged group to which you don't belong complains about what they perceive as injustice, you should simply listen.

    In real life, I am quite forgiving of stupid verbal comments/slips in speech on account of the person being socially awkward or prone to babbling or whatever, but this is a letter of reference for a candidate for a faculty position, written by an experienced faculty. If there is a place to take your time and be careful about what you write, this is the place (as are the letters for promotion/tenure). It sounds, unambiguously, like the candidate is only worth comparing to other women, and not to all top graduate students. It is a clear qualifier that the letter writer does not consider her to be among the top students overall, but chooses a small subset to which he believes she justly belongs.
    If one wants to point out, in a non-sexist way, that she is not part of the very cream of the crop, one could have written something like "She is likely in the top 10-15% percentile of recent graduates"; instead, the writer chose to compare her to other women graduates, which indicates what he thinks of women in general.

    • MinosAsterion says:

      @GMP
      Unless I myself am missing the point, I think it is possible that this may be a misinterpretation of what Rob Knop was trying to say. I took his post to mean, "Let us preserve in the back of our mind at least the *possibility* that this person is not a sexist bastard, while retaining our leading hypothesis that this person is, in point of fact, a sexist bastard. In no way was Knop suggesting that is was *highly likely* that we should think that this was sound and fury, only that as good scientists we should keep even highly unlikely hypotheses in mind as we consider the evidence (i.e., the letter).

      Speaking of the "burden of being privileged" again (i think) misses the point being made. I don't think Knop was trying to say "lay off this guy, he's not so bad!" as much as "at least be careful we don't make enemies where we don't need to for *practical* reasons." While I don't see how one could make enemies through the aether by one's interpretation of a letter (in this, I think Knop is wrong), I don't think this is entirely fair to Knop.

      I think you are *almost certainly* correct in reading the original letter writer as a sexist bastard, but I am somewhat certainly convinced that the interpretation of Knop was just the sort of assumption of bad faith against which he seemed to be warning.

      I don't think *anyone* has suggested looking at the presumed sexist bastard's letter with *anything* but the most extreme skepticism.

  • Alex says:

    "early-mid 40′s": How depressing. My parents will probably retire before he will; and I like them.

    Credibility: You really can't trust someone who writes something like that. Even aside from the statement, it belays a worldview so alien to what should be used for such metrics that no observations from it can be trusted.

  • rknop says:

    A good rule of thumb is that, when someone who is part of a non-privileged group to which you don’t belong complains about what they perceive as injustice, you should simply listen.

    ...and not try and do anything? And not ask the question, what is the best way to communicate to people that what you're doing here is sexist, even if that's not your intention?

    • Isabel says:

      I think what GMP was saying is that this case is unambiguous, that there is really no way for the letter writer's intentions *not* to be sexist ones.

      • Rob Knop says:

        What scares me about that is that I will sometimes say something that doesn't come out right, either because I just slipped up, or because I didn't realize that it was being interpreted as sexist. As a result, people conclude that I'm a conscious intentional sexist and The Enemy-- a conclusion that is, indeed, drawn in the comment thread above.

        There's a difference between saying "do you realize that that is a sexist way to say that?" and "you're a sexist!". The first might help somebody who is well-intentioned to question what they're doing, the second will evoke nothing but defensiveness.

        • GMP says:

          I think in oral communication most people will not go for the jugular and yell "you're sexist!" just because of a slip-up (I know I wouldn't), but would rather point out that a statement sounds sexist and would give you a chance to explain yourself.

          But when writing a letter that is so instrumental to one's hiring, it's another person's career on the line, so you better make it crystal clear and unambiguous what you are trying to say. There are absolutely no excuses for sexist-sounding letters of reference. I am willing to put money on the letter writer in FSP's example intentionally trying to convey that the candidate is not in the boys' league.

        • Bagelsan says:

          What scares me about that is that I will sometimes say something that doesn’t come out right, either because I just slipped up, or because I didn’t realize that it was being interpreted as sexist. As a result, people conclude that I’m a conscious intentional sexist and The Enemy– a conclusion that is, indeed, drawn in the comment thread above.

          What GMP said. Also, surely you've said stupid or sexist stuff before, and I assume you're still not a total pariah? That's because women aren't actually constantly looking for ways to hate you. We're pretty forgiving (often to our detriment. ;p)

          And honestly, even if a few women decided you were unforgivable, the material consequences would probably be pretty limited. Sadly even the really sexist dudes usually get a pass from society, and their accusers are told to shush -- when violent rapists who videotape their assault get to walk, exactly how hard a slap on the wrist do you expect from a verbal slip-up?

  • Isabel says:

    "...capable of making a fair evaluation of a female doctoral recipient, or does the very act of writing something like that in a letter of reference indicate bias"

    No he is not capable (I am assuming any relevant information that would explain his qualifier would have been included in the OP if it existed) and yes he is biased.

    And it is shocking if this really is a common practice, as some have indicated in the comment thread.

  • anon says:

    Along the same lines, I recently read a letter of reference submitted for a faculty position that included the line, "It will not hurt him that he is [minority race]."

  • Alex from 1:20, not from 11:20 says:

    I'm not sure I quite get Toffee's clarification. If his letter says "[Applicant] is as good as other top grads from our program, like Mary Smith and Jane Doe", and Mary Smith and Jane Doe are famous people in the field, then that seems like a very reasonable letter. If, OTOH, it says "[Applicant] is as good as other top female grads from our program, like Mary Smith and Jane Doe", then irrespective of intent, privilege, lack thereof, whatever, as a simple statistical fact the letter is making a comparison with a smaller pool, and hence is sending a weaker message. You can interpret, defend, or attack the statement in light of whatever you want, but it's a weaker statement than he could have made.

  • msphd says:

    I agree with the people who said comparisons with other individuals by name is a stupid practice, but sadly this is just another example of an antiquated, subjective tradition in academia that doesn't make sense if scientists want to be scientific about evaluating candidates.

    I recall a few studies showing that candidates consistently suffer if a letter-writer can't think of a suitable person for comparison (say, in reference to a female candidate, they may hesitate to compare her to a male example).

    In the case you're mentioning, I agree that the sexism is really in the eye of the beholder. It shouldn't matter that he said it, unless the search committee is inherently sexist.

    It's great if there are other women in the field and Toffee saw similarities beyond gender - but what if there aren't any women? And/or the author leaves out a comparison? How often does that hurt the candidate, by making her appear less than worthy of comparison to the top men in her field?

    Having said that, I do wonder, given the amount of time that search committees spend puzzling over these letters, why they don't just pick up the phone and call the person who wrote it. Isn't it faster to ask for clarification than to surmise at length what they might have meant? Especially if the candidate's other materials make her seem worth pursuing?

    A phone conversation will often reveal the person's real intentions - sexist or well-meant - because it gives them a chance to address what the readers found confusing.

    Of course, I wish everyone would do this for grants and paper revisions, too. Communication is really a lost art, but especially written communication. Small wonder since so many scientists aren't even required to take minimal humanities classes in college anymore. And nobody offers a class in How to Make Sure Your Postdocs Get Hired (Even the Female Ones).

  • theshortearedowl says:

    Is it possible the original letter writer was simply proud of the fact that their department was turning out top graduates who were female, and tried to refer to this in the letter in a clumsy way? There are people (men and women) who are just incapable of seeing people without a gender classification.

  • hkukbilingualidiot says:

    Am I a bit too desensitized, as my interpretations of that is less demonic and more of praise. I don't really know what field that reference letter came from but my perception of women in science is usually the fact that they are generally better than male scientists because they have to work significantly harder at getting to graduation, partly due to the innate bias. However, I don't know the writer but merely putting an additional spin to the problem.

    • Bagelsan says:

      I also think that female students are often better than male students and have to work harder to get there, too (I feel similarly about women who have kids, actually), but I wouldn't start writing letters with the assumption that everyone else agrees with me. That opinion is very much in the minority. Just because you think "that postdoc has a 2-year-old? She must be efficient as all get out!" doesn't mean you should be writing stuff like "she is the best researcher (among the women with toddlers) working in my lab!" and hope that will be read as highest praise.

  • Isabel says:

    This thread is a disgrace. Where are all these excuses coming from? Are we desensitized to sexism or something? Imagine he compared her to other black grad students- that should help.

  • TGIQ says:

    As a female PhD student, I know I would be WILDLY incensed if I learned that one of my reference letters contained a statement such as the one FSP presented. As others have already said, I want any evaluation of my scientific abilities to be based on the quality of my work, the novelty and relevance of my ideas, my communication skills and maybe even how well I play with others - not what's in my pants. (But then, I generally don't play well with sexist a-holes, so would not be asking one for a reference letter.)

    So to answer FSP's original question: no, that individual is not capable of making an unbiased assessment of the candidate.

  • Nicole says:

    I have seen far far worse in economics.

  • [...] phrases like "Applicant X is one of the best female graduates of our [...]