The academy — defined as "an association of scholars, writers, artists, etc., for advancing literature, art or science" — is where logic, reason and equity are said to underpin the institution's esprit de corps.
It is the last place you would expect to find gender bias. But there is widespread gender bias in the ivory tower. Professors and officials who hire long have known that the words used in letters of recommendation to distinguish women from men hurt the careers of many aspiring female professors.
Now, the work Michelle Hebl, professor of psychology and management at Rice University, Randi Martin, the Elma Schneider Professor of Psychology at Rice, and Juan Madera, assistant professor at the University of Houston, offers empirical evidence that letter writers use "emotive" and "communal" words to describe women but "agentive" words to describe men.
In their study, "Gender and Letters of Recommendation for Academia: Agentive and Communal Differences," published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, the trio reviewed 624 letters of recommendation for 194 applicants for eight junior faculty positions at a U.S. university. The research, which was supported by the National Science Foundation, shows that the use of communal and agentive words affects hiring judgments.
Communal words include adjectives such as "affectionate," "agreeable," "helpful," "kind," "nurturing" and "sympathetic," and behaviors such as "helping others," "maintaining relationships" and "taking directions well."
Agentive adjectives include "aggressive," "ambitious," "daring," "dominant," "independent," "intellectual" and "outspoken," and behaviors such as "initiating tasks," "influencing others" and "speaking assertively."
The researchers said that letter writers who use communal or emotive terms raise additional doubt about female candidates by including phrases such as "She might make an excellent leader," while writing that a man "is already an established leader."
To reach their findings, Hebl, Martin and Madera controlled for important variables such as the number of years candidates attended graduate school, how much they have published, the number of honors they received, the number of courses taught, the position applied for and the number of years of postdoctoral work and study.
"We found that being communal is not valued in academia," Martin said. "The more communal characteristics mentioned, the lower the evaluation of the candidate."
Hebl argues that while the research has important implications for women in the academy, it also has significance for women in management, leadership roles and medicine. (A follow-up study, supported by the National Institutes of Health, will be conducted specifically dealing with academic positions at medical schools.)
"A large body of research suggests that communality is not perceived to be congruent with leadership and management jobs," Hebl said. "Subtle gender discrimination continues to be rampant. And it's important to acknowledge this because you cannot remediate discrimination until you are first aware of it. Our research shows that even small differences — again in our study, the seemingly innocuous choice of words — can act to create disparity over time and experiences."
Few in academe are surprised that the study found no difference between women and men as letter writers. Women were just as likely as men to use emotive words to describe women, and they were just as likely as men to use agentive adjectives for men. The ugly truth, Hebl said, is that although communal words might be nice on their face, they paint women as being "pushovers, not somebody to run a program." She advises letter writers to stay away from communal and emotive words to describe men or women when their careers are at stake.
The value of this research cannot be overstated. There is and always has been a shortage of women in the recruiting pool for academic positions, and this shortage will continue unabated if colleges and universities run away from the implications of the study.
"When you see communal terminology, it is linking people to a feminine type, and they are not seen as credible and they don't get hired," Hebl said. "It's not just men doing this, and it's not just women being hurt, but it hurts women more."
• • •
I made a mistake in the last paragraph of my Nov. 7 commentary about the University of Tampa: I wrote: "From all indications … there will not be a tenured African-American at UT for many years. Most universities require a five-year trial period before a professor has a tenure review. Currently, not one black is in the tenure cycle at the University of Tampa." I have learned since that UT may have as many as three African-Americans on tenure track, one of whom was hired this semester.
But the commentary's broader point remains: The University of Tampa, founded in 1931, has never had a tenured African-American professor, and given the six-year probationary period before professors get a full tenure review, no African-American professor will earn tenure anytime soon. According to a chart UT posted on its website after my commentary, it has 251 faculty members, including eight who report themselves as "black or African American." This group includes all full-time black instructors — not just African Americans and not just those on the tenure track — and even then represents a mere 3 percent of the total faculty. My broader point remains.