Marcia McNutt, Editor-in-Chief of Science, wrote a thoughtful Editorial about recommendation letters:
I noted an overall bias in the language used to describe the male candidates versus some of the female candidates. In some letters, women were described as “friendly,” “kind,” “pleasant,” “humble,” and frequently, “nice.”
[O]ne letter described how the candidate was so good to her elderly mother, yet still enjoyed life, spending time in nature with her husband and her animal friends.
Another letter reflected amazement that the candidate managed to balance so efficiently being a student, a scientist, and a mother.
But isn’t it good being nice, humble and having lots of animal friends?
Not if that’s the only thing the letter says about you:
[A selection committee reading such a letter] cannot help but put a candidate at a disadvantage when compared to others who are praised for their self-initiated research projects, interesting uses of coursework to address new scientific problems, or careful background preparation for the research project proposed.
How does a better letter look like?
Very different words were used to describe the male candidates (and many of the females as well): “brilliant,” “creative,” “hard-working,” “insightful,” and “showing leadership.”
She ends her Editorial with a call to arms:
I urge all who write these important letters of recommendation to take a last look before hitting “send” to be sure that what you have written is free of bias.
Yup, I agree. But let me add something: Everywhere I have worked so far it has been common practice that the people on the job market provide drafts to their (always terribly busy) letter writers. That already gives everyone an opportunity to avoid some of this bias. When you describe yourself -whatever gender you are- use the words ‘brilliant’, ‘creative’, ‘hard-working’, ‘insightful’, ‘showing leadership’ and only then add ‘nice’ and ‘good team player’.
Leave out your animal friends.