How to Avoid Unconscious Gender Bias in Referral Letters

Dr. Helen Gurney-Smith delivers a talk at TEDx Victoria on “Flexing Your Mussels: Shellfish as Powerful Ecosystem Indicators”.

By Helen Gurney-Smith

Helen is a Make Possible Member and active participant in WinSETT Workshops including Becoming Leaders, Negotiating for Success and Navigating the Politics of the Workplace. She is a research scientist and head of the shellfish husbandry group in the Centre for Shellfish Research at Vancouver Island University. Her research interests include using functional genomics, genetics and ecological techniques to examine the impacts of climate change, pollution, aquaculture and fisheries on coastal ecosystem health and resilience.

Often when we talk about unconscious gender bias in the workplace, we think in relation to appointment stereotyping, but I’ve recently found that it extends far beyond that of role definition and may even determine whether you’re in the running for that job at all!

Recently I was nominated for a federally funded position and part of the process is securing letters of reference. Under the letter writing guidelines was a section on limiting unconscious bias1 as, according to a report from the American Association of University Women2, letters for female applicants were shorter in length, included gender terms (e.g. woman, mother, wife), had fewer ‘standout’ adjectives (e.g. excellent, outstanding), included ‘doubt raisers’ (unexplained comments, negative language), and focused on interpersonal attributes and personal information not relevant to the position.

This was a total surprise to me, and not something that I had even considered as a reference seeker or as a referee myself. The same limitations to female applicants were also noted in a European Union report3, where women’s contributions are undervalued, using ‘grindstone’ adjectives such as “hardworking” as opposed to ‘standout’ adjectives like “brilliant” for male applicants with similar accomplishments.

So remember, the next time you’re applying for a position, prep your referees beforehand so that they can help ensure that your workplace strengths shine through! And if you’re in the position of being a referee, make sure that any letters for females give those candidates an equal evaluation footing with their male colleagues. Pass it on!


1 Natural Sciences and Engineering Council Canada Research Chair application guidelines. See http://www.chairs-chaires.gc.ca/program-programme/referees-repondants-eng.aspx#guidelines. Accessed 4 May, 2015.
2 C. Hill, C. Corbett, A. St. Rose (2010). Why so few? Women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. American Association of University Women. 107pp.
3 European Commission (2012). EUR 24905 – Structural change in research institutions: Enhancing excellence, gender equality and efficiency in research and innovation. Report of the Expert Group on Structural Change, 45pp. doi: 10.27777/32045.