January 18, 2020

Check for gender bias in letters of recommendation

Posted by Laura Guertin

Gender bias exists in letters of recommendation, and there are plenty of sources that document this across the years and across STEM fields. The following is a very small sample of the articles out there that call attention to the issue:

  • A Linguistic Comparison of Letters of Recommendation for Male and Female Chemistry and Biochemistry Job Applicants (Schmader et al., 2007)
  • Gender and letters of recommendation for academia: Agentic and communal differences (Madrea et al., 2009)
  • Science faculty’s subtle gender biases favor male students (Moss-Racusin et al., 2012)
  • Gender differences in recommendation letters for postdoctoral fellowships in geoscience (Dutt et al., 2016)
  • Raising Doubt in Letters of Recommendation for Academia: Gender Differences and Their Impact (Madera et al., 2019)
  • The Presence of Gender Bias in Letters of Recommendations Written for Urology Residency Applicants (Filippou et al., 2019)

Fortunately, there are tools that exist to assist us with reducing the unintentional bias we may include as we write letters for our students and peers.


In addition to the link to the Gender-Bias Calculator in the tweet above, several universities are now posting guides on their websites for how to avoid bias (mostly gender) when writing letters of recommendation. Be sure to check out resources from University of Arizona (also pictured below), Columbia University Earth Institute, and Lehigh University, to name a few.

For the impact this can have on individuals and our discipline as a whole, we can and should add this final step to check our letters of recommendation for gender bias as we write them, and when we read them.