Nobody wants to hire someone who’s “nurturing”

Want a job in academia? Don’t be so “communal.” It seems, according
to ongoing research at Rice University in Houston, Texas, that
recommendation letters may be costing “affectionate” and “nurturing”
women jobs and promotions at universities.

I bet that research applies just about anywhere.

According to the Rice University News & Media website, the study,
funded by the National Science Foundation, and led by professor
Michelle Hebl, shows that “qualities mentioned in recommendation letters
for women differ sharply from those for men.” And the terminology, they
say, may be costing women.

Researchers reviewed 624 letters of recommendation for 194 applicants
for eight junior faculty positions at a U.S. university. “They found
that letter writers conformed to traditional gender schemas when
describing candidates. Female candidates were described in more communal
(social or emotive) terms and male candidates in more agentic (active
or assertive) terms.” (That latter one a new word for me, by the way.)

The strength of the letters was also rated, meaning the likelihood
the candidate would be hired based on the letter. Names and personal
pronouns were removed from the letters and researchers controlled for
other variables like years of schooling etc.

“We found that being communal is not valued in academia,” said
co-author Randi Martin. “The more communal characteristics mentioned,
the lower the evaluation of the candidate.”

Some of the communal words in question: “Affectionate, helpful, kind,
sympathetic, nurturing, tactful and agreeable, and behaviours 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 behaviours such as speaking assertively, influencing
others and initiating tasks.”

OK, is this really that much of a surprise or an outrage? Unless
you’re looking for a job at a kennel (petting zoo? daycare?), I can’t
imagine any situation in which the words “affectionate” or “nurturing”
would appeal to an employer. Even in academia, I think this is probably

It’s interesting that the agentic (ha! Look, I used it in a sentence)
qualities were viewed more positively, though (as I assume they were).
Who’d have thought the academic field was big on dominance and

A follow-up study, funded by the National Institutes of Health, is
under way and includes applicants for faculty and research positions at
medical schools.

“Communal characteristics mediate the relationship between gender and
hiring decisions in academia, which suggests that gender norm
stereotypes can influence hireability ratings of applicants,” Martin

“Subtle gender discrimination continues to be rampant,” Hebl said.
“And it’s important to acknowledge this because you cannot remediate
discrimination until you are first aware of it. Our and other research
shows that even small differences — and in our study, the seemingly
innocuous choice of words — can act to create disparity over time and

In other words, when someone asks you to write them a letter of recommendation, don’t call them “sympathetic” and “agreeable.”

I’m guessing that’s not the intended takeaway here. But it’s what I’m going with. Is there something I’m not getting?