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STUDY: Recommendation letters for women in science are unintentionally sexist

Why do women have 40 percent of doctoral degrees in the geosciences and only 10 percent of the professorships?

The recommendation letters written on their behalf are actually sabotaging their advancement, according to a recent Columbia University analysis of “1,000 recommendation letters written for geosciences postdoctoral fellowships” all over the world, The Daily Texan reports.

Stripped of “any identifying factors” that could introduce bias, the letters were classified as excellent, good and doubtful – and women got half as many “excellent” letters as men.

Why? Adjectives:

“Our study uncovers what appears to be a very real problem that is consistent with implicit bias,” [lead author Prof. Kuheli] Dutt said. “Given the way society views men, men are more likely to be described as ‘confident’ and ‘dynamic’ whereas women are more likely to be described as ‘mature’ and ‘caring.’”

According to Dutt, while these labels might be applied with good intentions, adjectives that tout leadership and innovation are more favorably viewed by businesses. Companies promote people to lead and spearhead projects, whereas people described as “mature” and “team-builders” are not selected as readily for these opportunities, Dutt said.

Dutt is also assistant director for academic affairs and diversity at Columbia’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory.

The “leaky pipeline” is a broader problem in STEM fields and legal professions, according to University of Texas Psychology Prof. Arthur Markman: “As we move up the higher education ladder, promotions and fellowships and tenure faculty prominence of women drop off significantly.”

The next step won’t surprise you: Dutt says there needs to be more study of implicit bias for “non-binary genders” and “intersectionality of minorities and gender.”

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