I'm in the process of writing a recommendation letter for a female student to be admitted to some honors program within the university.

She is fantastic and I assume that she will get admitted with or without my help, so my question isn't necessarily specific to this particular letter, but I do remember feeling curious about this, so now's a good time to ask, I guess!

It's this one line in my letter that made me scratch my head a little bit. The line in question would like to say something like, "she is very interested in advancing women and other minorities in the STEM field," which is a quality that I approve of heartily.

The problem is, I am not sure if everyone in academia feels the same way about this as I do. Perhaps there is that one grumpy old professor from the Old Boys' Club who absolutely hates "feminists" and maybe I am inadvertently hurting her chances.

Sure, I could word it carefully so that it doesn't set off the feminist trigger in most people, but I still have that nagging feeling of "what if" in my head.

Just to make sure that I am not misunderstood, I also support gender equality, and I do not want to discourage anyone from saying so, but recommendation letters are a delicate thing that need to appeal to everyone, and I do not want to hurt anyone's chances, most of all not of these fantastic women that I want to brag about to everyone.

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    Is her activity relevant for the position? Is political activism something that may advance her application? If not, leave it out. – Captain Emacs Sep 25 '16 at 20:44
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    @CaptainEmacs it sounds clear-cut at a first glance, but if you remember that most programs have generic sounding descriptions such as "we look for the leaders who can make a difference," it is less clear. Also, if you take that logic one step further, you don't NEED activism to succeed in any of STEM, which goes against all the effort to promote women in STEM. I really don't think it's as clear-cut as you suggest. – Sana Sep 25 '16 at 20:46
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    Being in STEM, I am emphatically agnostic about political activism. However, mentioning political activism can send a message ranging that the candidate demonstrates independence and initiative to that the candidate substitutes intellectual integrity with eristic sleight-of-word. Be aware of what hidden messages may lurk there and make sure you do not send a message you do not wish to convey. Also, if she is so brilliant, the one thing you do not want (as very well conveyed by @PeteLClark) is to send the message that she should get the position because of having the right political mindset. – Captain Emacs Sep 25 '16 at 21:04
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    If you do decide to include it, you may wish to avoid describing women as a minority.... – Flyto Sep 25 '16 at 22:28
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    @SimonW Women aren't a minority of the overall population, but if you look at just STEM, women are definitely a minority. A more accurate and unambiguous term would be "underrepresented group". – Laurel Sep 26 '16 at 3:07

First of all, your title doesn't quite match the rest of your question. In your suggested quote you write "she is very interested in advancing women and other minorities in the STEM field," whereas according to the title you are asking whether you should write "She is a feminist." Sadly, these things will not evoke equivalent responses in all parties -- the word "feminist" has unpleasant connotations in certain circles nowadays, more so than a generation ago. (By the way, I am a feminist, and it makes me sick that the word is now taken in this way. But it is by many, and so I think it is too loaded a word to use about someone else in such a context.)

The purpose of a recommendation letter is to successfully convey your impression of the recommended party. In particular, if you feel strongly that the recommended party should get the position being applied for, then you want to write the letter that maximizes the chance of that happening (while staying appropriate, professional and truthful, of course). With that in mind: how relevant "she is very interested in advancing women and other minorities in the STEM field" to the honors program the student is applying to? Is this advancement one of the activities that students in the program will be participating in? Or, beyond interest, does the candidate have a record of activities and/or accomplishments in advancing women and other minorities in the STEM field? If the answer to either question is yes, I would suggest that you fill in further details accordingly: this is part of your argument that she is great fit for the program. If not, then: are students selected for the honors program because of their progressive views -- or, much more cynically put, because of the alignment of their political and social views with those of the administrators of the program? Probably not, right? In particular, because "She is fantastic and I assume that she will get admitted," then I don't think you need to help her out in this particular way. There is some risk that even a feminist could read "she is very interested in advancing women and other minorities in the STEM field" as a bit of a consolation prize. Again, write the strongest letter you can.

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    Yeah, thanks. It's definitely easy to forget that sometimes not writing something makes a stronger letter. – Sana Sep 25 '16 at 21:34
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    "Or, beyond interest, does the candidate have a record of activities and/or accomplishments in advancing women and other minorities in the STEM field?" This. Just being "interested in" advancing WAOMs has no more value than being interested in basket weaving or synchronized swimming. The relevant issue is "what has she actually accomplished which enhanced your own working environment" - and of course if the answer is "nothing much", don't bother to mention it at all. – alephzero Sep 26 '16 at 1:51
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    Key point buried in the middle and the crux of the issue: what she's interested in is her private business, which she can share if she thinks it's relevant. If she's accomplished something in this area that is directly relevant, you can vouch for her success. That's your appropriate role. – fixer1234 Sep 26 '16 at 4:27
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    The second paragraph makes that point, but not explicitly: A letter needs to address the selection criteria that are used to evaluate the candidate (or your best understanding of these criteria). Whether or not to mention this strongly depends on where the letter goes. Apparently, if the letter is to the Fields Medal committee, supporting women is not something that will get you somewhere. If it is for the position of undergraduate teaching coordinator in a reasonable university, the issue may be different. – Wolfgang Bangerth Sep 26 '16 at 6:25
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    WRT "unpleasant connotations": More than one of my friends is empathetically against "feminism," because they associate it with the crazy people screaming that all men should die, rather than the reasonable people saying that women deserve equal opportunities. When asked, specifically, if they're against things like affirmative action, they say no, but if you asked them what they think of feminists, they mutter something about crazy people making humans look bad. – Nic Hartley Sep 26 '16 at 21:22

Answer to the question in the title:

"yes" if and only if feminism is a matter of the person's research activity.

("No" if it's not.)

Reason: you wish to say that this person is an excellent scientist. Period. The person reading your letter doesn't even need to be informed of the candidate's gender, let alone whether they hold feminist viewpoints.

(EDIT: This answer assumes that the honor program is about science rather than anything else like social or organizational skills. Please consult other answers if this assumption does not hold.)

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    You can know someone is a feminist without knowing whether they are a woman. – Patricia Shanahan Sep 25 '16 at 22:00
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    @PatriciaShanahan While I agree (and indeed am a feminist and not a woman), I suspect that the letter will automatically be gendered by the mention of the applicant being a feminist even if it's otherwise blinded. – Fomite Sep 26 '16 at 8:20
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    @ScottSeidman The OP speaks about an academic context. (In other, nonscientific context, the answer could have been different. E.g., if the person would apply to an executive position, you would like to say whether the person is a good leader.) However, here in science, even if the person is an extroverted communist and a sadomasochist at the same time, it's not our business. It's irrelevant. – Leon Meier Sep 26 '16 at 13:05
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    You realize that this is for some "Honors Program", and might even have ZERO to do with science? Not all academia is science. Promoting STEM may not even be related to the level of science that the student participates in. It may have to do with student leadership -- which involves character. – Scott Seidman Sep 26 '16 at 13:09
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    @ScottSeidman If leadership qualities were mentioned in the honors program description, one should state the ability to be a leader. I'm afraid feminism is orthogonal to being a leader/follower. The OP does not say clearly that that particular program does require leadership qualities or is otherwise gender-related. Said that, it's safe to assume that the honors program is about science, as most honors programs at universities. In this case, we even know the rough area: STEM. – Leon Meier Sep 26 '16 at 13:33

I would approach this with extreme caution, and honestly, I'd be quite hesitant to mention it in a LOR I was writing, despite finding your student's objectives laudable (and being quite comfortable being described as a feminist). There are a few reasons for this:

  • It calls out her gender. Very rarely do we write about the commitment of a male graduate student to the representation of women in STEM fields. As much as I hate to say it, even mentioning it will bring the gender of the applicant to the forefront, and there's pretty strong evidence that a female applicant is inherently disadvantaged.
  • There are two audiences who care about this: People who care about women in STEM, and people who will go "I don't want a feminist/political activist/etc. in my lab". The former will likely still be interested in your candidate - after all, if they care, they should be caring about her scientific accomplishments. The latter will likely hold those actions against her.
  • Along those same lines, it gives someone the opening to dismiss her as "What, she doesn't do good enough science for you to just write about that?"

Basically, I think mentioning it can only really hurt her, unless the position clearly calls for evidence of that kind of advocacy work, or you know it's a passion for whoever would be reading her letter (for example, if you're writing the recommendation not for a program, but to a specific PI).

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    "and there's pretty strong evidence that a female applicant is inherently disadvantaged." Did you mean the other way around? Because companies are hiring incompetent women over competent men all over the place to fill up quotas. – Davor Sep 28 '16 at 10:19
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    @Davor pnas.org/content/109/41/16474.full.pdf – Fomite Sep 28 '16 at 10:20
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    @Davor "honors program within the university" isn't STEM companies. Not sure why you decided to head toward an irrelevant tangent. Though I'm sure peer-reviewed support for your beliefs is forthcoming? – Fomite Sep 28 '16 at 10:28
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    @Davor given this site is academia about a STEM student applying for a university program the reference is a perfect fit. If this was workplace.se or for a student applying for industry, then I am sure Formite would have chosen another peer reviewed piece of evidence, from the large set of mm possibikities, demonstrating gender bias. – StrongBad Sep 28 '16 at 11:53
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    To be clear: claiming "companies are hiring incompetent women over competent men all over the place to fill up quotas" is sexism, plain and simple. It contains, for example, the assumption that any woman hired is incompetent (and, for that matter, the equally false assumption that any male hired is competent). – Greg Martin Sep 29 '16 at 6:26

The word "feminist" is "loaded," so I wouldn't use that word, if that's what you are asking in your title.

But if the issue is, "she is very interested in advancing women and other minorities in the STEM field," that's fine. That phrase gets the key idea across without provoking a gut level reaction (either positive or negative). After all, you want your student to be judged "neutrally" on her qualifications, without regard to whether the hiring professor is pro- or anti- "feminism."

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    Indeed. The word 'feminist' can mean a lot of things. Being more specific is a much better idea if you feel the need to include this information at all. I'd guess that few people in academia (in the West, at least) will take a negative view toward wanting to encourage women to enter into STEM fields and help them succeed there. Far more, however, may take a negative view toward many other positions that are usually described as 'feminist.' – reirab Sep 26 '16 at 19:47

You want to put some icing on the cake, and add something about the candidate's feminist activities, but are questioning whether doing so openly would strengthen her chances.

If her CV is openly proud of those activities, by, for example, listing a volunteer role in a feminist organization, then you can be similarly open. If she has chosen not to bring these activities out clearly in her CV, you can still work them into your letter, but in a more subtle way, e.g.

As a grad student, Dr. Jones was extremely effective as a peer mentor in our department and as an outreach volunteer in the community.

Outreach can get you brownie points with, for example, the NSF, so this could be an effective selling point.

Also, if Dr. Jones took the initiative in some way, that would be another plus you could draw out of it, without being explicit.

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    I agree with this answer overall. However if the student mentions experience with a political organization, it may be appropriate to discuss this; but I believe the letter should still avoid discussion of the student's politics, because they are not what's relevant for the job. If you were writing a letter for Cecile Richards, what you should write is that she led a organization with $1.3 billion annual revenue -- not that she is really pro-choice! – Tom Church Oct 7 '16 at 19:27

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