Damning with faint praise

A paper out in Nature Geoscience analyzed reference letters written for recent PhD’s seeking postdocs. Women geoscientists are less likely to get letters with ‘the phrases “scientific leader”, “brilliant scientist”, “trailblazer” or “one of the best students I’ve ever had”’. This is maybe the second most depressing science-y thing GG has seen this week (maybe we’ll come back to number 1 soon); maybe it is number 1. [Update April 2017: EOS, the newsmagazine of the American Geophysical Union, made this a cover story recently].

There are a bunch of ways to interpret this.  The politically incorrect way is, in the absence of a measure of true ability, to assume that this reflects true difference in quality.  If true, then the loss of female PhDs at this point is merely weeding out the weaker scientists. This feels wrong.

The politically correct answer might be to say that this reveals continuing sexual bias, men putting down women.  This also feels wrong at a certain level: in addition to seeing no correlation with the gender of the letter writer, people asked to write letters of reference are usually folks who have supported these individuals through their PhD.  Although the study’s authors note that they cannot control for the relationship between the letter writer and the applicant, no doubt a significant fraction of the letters were written by the PhD advisors. These are people who recruited and developed these scientists; they are unlikely to appear lukewarm in their praise.

But there is, in GG’s mind, a more subtle gender bias in play, and a quote from the Nature news item on this starts to bring this into focus:

People on hiring committees need training to minimize implicit gender biases when evaluating recommendation letters, says Virginia Valian, a psychologist at Hunter College of the City University of New York. “Describing someone as a ‘team player’, for example, won’t be interpreted the same way for a man and a woman.” For men, she says, that’s taken as a leadership quality, while the phrase can make a woman seem like a follower.

Go back and read the “good” adjectives at the top of the post.  GG is willing to put some other adjectives into the mix with those: selfish, driven, self-promoting to name a few. A significant share [but by no means all!] of scientists viewed as “leaders” or “trailblazers” or such have rotten home lives, they publish out from under their students and colleagues, and GG offers the additional notation that in his experience, these are men. Women seem more often to help others and share their insights; they more often have a life outside the lab, it seems. They can be far more valuable to an academic program through these activities than a man bent on being known as a superstar, and their scientific output can be just as influential.

GG wonders a bit too if there is a different bias at play here.  After all, before these women get their PhDs, they have to work with an advisor.  Quite possibly the advisors who are strenuous cheerleaders for their students, who will write “leader” at the drop of a hat, are also cut from the kind of cloth that many women find oppressive to work with; the advisors they prefer working with maybe don’t write as exuberantly. If you could plot absolute ability vs. enthusiasm of a letter, GG suspects the correlation coefficient would be pretty small, but most of the scatter is from the inherent bias of the letter writer him- or herself. So in a way, just as with polling biases, you would ideally have a control for the tendency of a letter writer to hyperbole (NSF panels often are aware of this in judging reviews of proposals; it can be harder to see in faculty searches).

The message here is that search committees need to read letters better, because what is in the letters is unlikely to change soon. GG would like to think his department has a handle on this: instead of the profession-wide <10% female faculty population, our faculty is 28% female [note April 2017: we’re adding 2 new female faculty, carrying us over 30% female]. Not perfect, but a lot closer to the ~40% of PhDs who are female.  The highest paid faculty member, after adjusting for years since PhD, is female (and yes, without any doubt she is a trailblazer and a leader). Two of the last three department chairs have been female. And these women are a big part of why our department at the University of Colorado is a top drawer geoscience department.

We’ll be happy to benefit from the blindness of other programs for now, but for the overall health of the field, let’s hope that programs across the country take this as a wake-up call to be more careful in reading letters of support.


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