More importantly, how would someone categorize you?
In a 2009 study, Rice University researchers found that people valued job candidates who were influential over candidates who were helpful. And the usage of those terms fell along a gender lines. Women were more often described with communal terms versus men who were described with agentic terms.
“We found that being communal is not valued in academia,” said Martin, the Elma Schneider Professor of Psychology at Rice. “The more communal characteristics mentioned, the lower the evaluation of the candidate.”
Words in the communal category included adjectives such as affectionate, helpful, kind, sympathetic, nurturing, tactful and agreeable, and behaviors such as helping others, taking direction well and maintaining relationships. Agentic adjectives included words such as confident, aggressive, ambitious, dominant, forceful, independent, daring, outspoken and intellectual, and behaviors such as speaking assertively, influencing others and initiating tasks.
Every spring I review scholarship applications and every year I read at least one letter that falls along these findings. Despite my years of training and knowledge of the issue, I find myself falling into the trappings of gendered language…even though my entire pool is made of women.
A former student of mine sent me a link to a blog post describing a real-life example:
[the applicant] is in the same league as other top female graduates [from this department]
This is obviously more offensive than describing a top candidate as agreeable instead of aggressive, but it still happens.
People acting as references need to remember that words matter far more than one might expect. And I know it’s hard to grasp, believe me it’s hard. The first commenter didn’t quite understand what was wrong with the statement. But he figured it out with some help from others.
And as I mentioned earlier, even I fall into this language trap. I find myself writing letters of recommendation and rereading over and over looking for how I might have described an excellent leader in a gendered way. The point isn’t to make women candidates sound like men. Rather it is to work within the reality that as a society we value masculine traits over feminine traits. Aggression over caring. I know, it is a double-edged sword for women. I do sit at my computer thinking, “Beth is aggressive in how she approaches life. But does that send a positive message or a negative one?” Because aggression in women is not always as valued. I do try to always say “She led…” instead of “She helped…” in letters.
It is a fine line us letter writers walk. Too strong and we might doom a candidate. Too weak and she won’t even get a call. It’s a line that we will perfect with practice and care. At least until we value caring!