This is an attempt to rescue a strongly down-voted question.

Are there any studies investigating possible unconscious gender bias in evaluating recommendation letters? Specifically, is there any published evidence that recommendation letters with female authors are (or are not) less effective than recommendation letters with male authors? Studies considering letters for graduate admission, faculty hiring, or promotion and tenure are all relevant.

Let me emphasize that I am not asking about intentional sexism, which I assume is sufficiently rare to be insignificant, but rather unconscious bias. I am also not asking for anecdotes, but pointers to actual published literature.

Similar studies have revealed significant gender disparity in several related academic contexts, including recommendation letters for male vs. female applicants. Other examples include:

  • Are requests in lieu of literature searches really on topic?
    – keshlam
    Commented Aug 17, 2015 at 1:01
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    @keshlam that is basically what the reference-request tag is for, yes.
    – ff524
    Commented Aug 17, 2015 at 1:18
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    It's hard to see how a test with recommendation letters from imaginary recommeders (varying the gender of the recommender) could be done. In decreasing order of influence the recommender could be known personally to the reader ("Jack and I coauthored a paper together 12 years ago", or by reputation ("I've read lots of Jane's papers"), or by association ("Prof X. is at MIT, so I'll give this letter some credit even though I've never heard of him.") A recommendation letter with non of these features wouldn't give a realistic test. Commented Aug 17, 2015 at 2:26
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    Are you asking about studies, for example, that use identical letters and swap the writter's name, or differences in how men and women write letters. While both are issues, they seem different,
    – StrongBad
    Commented Aug 17, 2015 at 2:41
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    @AK16 I see what you did there. Given that the actual victims of any such bias aren't privy to discussions of the letters they've written, how would they know? (Yes, I have discussed this issue with female colleagues, and some of them have expressed concern about possible bias; the question here is whether there is evidence that such concern is justified.)
    – JeffE
    Commented Aug 24, 2017 at 1:17

1 Answer 1


I couldn't find any recent (written after 2000, that is) study that directly addresses the issue of how the recommender's gender influence how the letter is perceived. However, I did find one interesting survey study (doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/j.1468-2389.2009.00453.x) that asked experts in personnel-related professions how they think about LORs. One item asked them to rate on a scale from 1 (strongly disagree) to 5 (strongly agree) the following statement:

I believe that applicant, referent, or reader gender may influence how one interprets the contents of LORs

The average response was 2.86 with an SD of 1.22. About 42% strongly agreed, and 43% strongly disagreed. Clearly there is some level of controversy when it comes to the role gender plays in LORs. The study did not, however, ask any question directly about the referent's gender, which makes it even harder to draw any specific conclusion for our purpose here.

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    Interesting catch. And RQ 14: I believe that applicant or writer gender may influence how one writes a LOR has interestingly 43.8% agree 39.8% disagree.
    – Zenon
    Commented Aug 17, 2015 at 4:07
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    ^ I would guess the part Zenon mentioned is the primary source of the controversy. As far as I know, it's fairly well established that there are significant gender differences in writing styles. Here's a paper on the topic and here's a website that guesses the author's gender of a given text based on the aforementioned work.
    – reirab
    Commented Aug 17, 2015 at 6:09

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