Ladies, Your Letter of Recommendation Is Hurting Your Job Search


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More bad news for female job seekers: even letters of recommendation are biased against you.

New research published in the Journal of Business and Psychology found that recommendations written about women were more likely to contain “doubt-raising” language that called her skills into question. As a result, women with these types of letters were rated less qualified than male counterparts.

The study qualified “doubt-raisers” in four categories: direct negativity, indirect criticism, hedging, and irrelevant information. For example, a letter might say “she might make a good leader one day.” At first glance, this statement seems positive, but it implies doubt that the woman has what it takes to lead.

This information might be disheartening for women. After all, you can’t control what someone writes in a letter of recommendation. But there are steps you can take to counteract this bias during your job search.

1. Get multiple recommendations.

Every person in your professional network knows a different side of you. They each can give a unique perspective about your capabilities. And the clearer picture that you can create for an employer, the less doubt they’ll have about hiring you.

Before you even ask someone for a letter of recommendation, make a list of all the qualities you want to exhibit for the hiring manager. Then think back on your work experience and identify who can best attest to your skills.

When you reach out to the people on your list, share the job description and point out which qualities you’d like them to focus on. This will ensure their letter is focused and concise, and therefore less likely to include “doubt-raisers.”

For example, if you want to back up your leadership skills, don’t ask your manager from your entry-level job for the recommendation. They won’t be able to share concrete examples, and the letter will fall flat. Instead, reach out to former co-workers or even people you’ve volunteered with. It doesn’t matter what their title is as long as they can confidently endorse you.

2. Remind the writer of your skills.

While the memories of your professional successes are clear in your mind, they’re probably hazy for whomever is recommending you. Especially if years have passed, they won’t recall all the the details. Then when they go to write the letter of recommendation, they’ll have to use vague or hedging language.

Avoid this by proactively providing each writer with old projects and examples of your work to jog their memories. Don’t overwhelm them with the extensive details of the entire time you two worked together. Instead, focus on the highlights.

It can also be helpful to meet up with the writer to catch up over coffee. Not only will this help reestablish your relationship, but also talking about the old times together will give both of you a chance to clarify details.

3. Provide concrete data.

By its very nature, a letter of recommendation is subjective. Its purpose is to share someone’s opinion about you. This is why any signs of doubt in a recommendation are harmful for women. But if you can offer proof of your skills, it dispels the doubt.

During the application process, wherever there’s a chance to include data about your performance, do it. One option is your cover letter. This is your chance to tell the hiring manager about yourself. So, instead of just listing why you’re interested in the job, add in information like the sales quotas you’ve reached or your customer service rating.

Also, don’t forget the power of links. Since most job applications are digital now, you can link to examples of your work or your LinkedIn page in your cover letter. The more data you include, the more it will outweigh doubting words in a letter of recommendation.

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Val Matta
Val Matta
Val Matta is the co-owner and leader of business development at CareerShift, a comprehensive job hunting and career management solution for companies, outplacement firms, job seekers and university career centers. You can connect with her and the CareerShift team on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter.