Tag Archives: gender bias

What Do Letters of Recommendation Reveal About Gender Bias?


Over the past month I have been putting together materials to apply for professorships. Much like applying to college or graduate school, applying to jobs means updating your curriculum vitae, putting together statements summarizing your research and teaching experience, and gathering letters of recommendation to send out to hiring schools, all in time for a fall deadline that is fast approaching (gulp). This process is a bit stressful and comes with many questions and concerns (What type of school do I want to work at? Am I good enough? What am I going to do if I don’t get any interviews? What am I going to do if I DO get interviews?). One question that had never crossed my mind was “Might I be at a disadvantage because of my gender?” But then I read an article on gender differences in letters of recommendation in academia, and suddenly it was a salient question.

Growing up, being female never felt like a disadvantage. Both of my parents worked and maintained the household, I didn’t have any brothers to create comparisons, and I was in classes with smart motivated students of both genders. The year I entered college was the first year that there were more females in college than males. Gender comparisons just weren’t part of my everyday experience. To be honest, I had little awareness that there could be any type of glass ceiling for me because of my gender. What does any of this have to do with applying for jobs? Well, in an attempt to prepare myself for job applications, I scoured the internet for helpful resources. One of the articles that I came across described research showing that letters of recommendation tend to highlight different traits for men and women, differences that is seems may actually put women at a disadvantage for getting the job.

A social revolution in the College of Engineering? Just maybe.

Courtesy californiawatch.orgLast November, a rather inciting petition was circulated among the women and minority student groups of UC Berkeley. Directed at the leadership of the College of Engineering (COE), the petition demanded marked improvements in the College’s social climate and a massive overhaul of the failing recruitment and retention plans aimed specifically at women and minority graduate students (also termed “underrepresented engineers” or simply UEs).

What follows is the recent social history of the COE, how the student-led petition came to be, where the COE’s efforts to enact change currently stand, and our prospects for meaningful social change in the near future.

WikiWomen: A new kind of party

Earlier this year, while I was sequestered in the bat-cave studying for my qualifying exam, I came across something very distressing. Widely reported from the New York Times to the feminist blog Jezebel, the study has been done and the verdict is in—only 13% of the people editing Wikipedia articles are women. Though there are endless articles debating the causes, my interest in the issue lies elsewhere: what can be done to change this?

I believe that more women would be involved in editing Wikipedia if it were a social activity, rather than an insular one, so I hosted a WikiWomen party at my house to make the experience collaborative. In attendance were five female chemists: myself, Anna Goldstein (your favorite blogger on BSR), Rebecca Murphy, Chelsea Gordon, and Helen Yu. We started the night with a dinner, over which we discussed the experience of being a graduate student, and how writing for Wikipedia compares to teaching undergraduates.

The old boys club

Two weeks ago, BSR blog contributor Liz Boatman wrote a heartfelt and eye-opening post (you can read it here) about the regrettable treatment faced by many female grad students in STEM fields. If you haven’t read it yet, you’re missing out.

One of the more shocking facts I stumbled upon in her post was that the Faculty Club at UC Berkeley once posted a sign that said “For Men Only”. I was well aware that women were not hired as faculty for a good part of the university’s history, but specifically banning women from even entering the Great Hall just adds insult to injury. I searched for a picture of the sign –  mainly to prove to myself that it really happened – and thanks to Susan Snyder and the helpful staff at the Bancroft Library, which houses the University Archives, I was granted access to a photo collection of the Faculty Club over the years. There was no picture of the offending sign (please let me know if you come across one), but I did find this gem. Click to see it full size:

I’ll present this photo without much comment, because I think it speaks for itself. You’ll note that this was in 1932, thirteen years after the founding of the Women’s Faculty Club. I also checked out the WFC’s historical photograph collection, but it was mostly photos of the furnishings inside (not a joke).