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Best Practices in Mentoring: Unintended Bias and Letters of Recommendation Laurie McNeil Dept. of Physics and Astronomy UNC-CH.

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Presentation on theme: "Best Practices in Mentoring: Unintended Bias and Letters of Recommendation Laurie McNeil Dept. of Physics and Astronomy UNC-CH."— Presentation transcript:

1 Best Practices in Mentoring: Unintended Bias and Letters of Recommendation Laurie McNeil Dept. of Physics and Astronomy UNC-CH

2 Does gender matter in academic medicine? Expanded pool of female physicians in late 1990’s – but –Women as fraction of academics showed little change from early 1990s (20 to 22%) –taking significantly longer to advance than male counterparts: 32% of Assistant Professors 21% of Associate Professors 10% of Full Professors 4.3% of Department Chairs Half as likely to receive tenure as males

3 Why do letters matter so much? Gatekeeping function – control access to particular positions Gatekeeping is ubiquitous but seldom public

4 You meant what you said, but did they read what you meant? We describe men and women differently in letters because of gender schemas By becoming aware of these schemas, we can write letters more free of unintended bias Such letters will facilitate the professional success of your mentee

5 Gender schemas We unconsciously assign certain psychological traits to males and females We assign certain traits to occupations

6 We see what we expect Men and women estimated heights of people from photographs –Men consistently estimated to be taller despite photos matched for height M. Biernat, M. Manis and T.E. Nelson, J. Personality and Social Psych. 60, (1991)

7 We make assumptions Single sex group (male or female) –Person at head of table identified as leader Mixed group, male at head –Same result Mixed group, female at head –Male sitting elsewhere identified as leader N. Porter and F.L. Geis, in Gender and nonverbal behavior (Ed. by C. Mayo & N. Henley), 1981 Men and women identified leader in photo of group seated around a table

8 We shift our criteria Gender not identified: –76% chose more educated –48% said education more important Male more educated –same result Female more educated –43% chose her –22% said education more important M. Norton, J.A. Vandello and J.M. Darley, J. of Personality and Social Psych. 87, (2004) Men and women chose candidates for stereotypically male job requiring education and experience

9 We apply criteria unequally Scientific competence, relevance of proposed research, quality of methodology “Impact factor” calculated from number of publications, citations, journal prestige –Women had impact factors 2.5 higher than males with same rating C. Wenneras and A. Wold, Nature 387, (1997) Reviews of applicants for a biomedical postdoctoral fellowship

10 We give “benefit of doubt” unequally CV stated person had received favorable performance review –Males and females rated equally competent CV stated performance review had not yet been completed –Females rated significantly less competent than males M. Heilman, A.S. Wallen, D. Fuchs and M.M. Tamkins, J. Applied Psychology 89, (2004) Men and women rated competence of people working in a male-dominated field

11 . “Our struggle today is not to have a female Einstein get appointed as an assistant professor. It is for a woman schlemiel to get as quickly promoted as a male schlemiel.” Bella Abzug’s opinion

12 Basic components of a good letter Commitment and relationship of recommender –How well you know the candidate and why you are writing Focus on record of applicant –What the candidate has done Evaluation of traits and accomplishment –How good is what the candidate has done?

13 Features found to produce positive or negative interpretations Length of letter –Shorter letters are less persuasive Identification with mentee –Letters for mentees with which author shares traits tend to be more favorable Naming practices and gender identification –“Lady physician;” “Suzy” vs. “Dr. X” Negative language or failure to state positive Substitution of stereotypical terms for substantive comments –“polite, quiet, gentle, friendly and cooperative”

14 The Trix & Psenka study All (n = 312) letters of rec. for 103 successful applicants (clinical and research positions) to one medical school, Applicants 71% male, writers 85% male, gatekeepers 96% male Letters rated as high, average, or deficient; physicians asked to do the same Analyzed established features (length, naming practices, negative language, status terms) New feature: “semantic realms following possessives” –“her training” vs. “his research” F. Trix & C. Psenka, Discourse & Society 14, (2003)

15 Study Results Length: letters for males longer –Average length (253 words vs. 227) –More very long letters for males (8% vs. 2%) Naming practices: more use of gender terms (woman, lady, mother) for females Negative language: more “doubt raisers” for females –Hedges, potentially negative statements, faint praise, unexplained comments, irrelevancies –In 24% of letters for females vs. 12% for males –Average 1.7/letter for females vs. 1.3/letter for males

16 Study Results cont.—status terms Grindstone adjectives: emphasize effort rather than ability –Hardworking, conscientious, dependable, meticulous, thorough, diligent, dedicated, careful –In 34% of letters for females vs. 23% for males “Research” as activity mentioned –Mentioned at least once: no difference –Multiple mentions in 62% of letters for males vs. 35% for females Possessive phrases –Overall usage of ‘his’ and ‘her’ same –For females: “her” …training, teaching, application –For males: “his” …research, skills and abilities, career

17 He or she will be: accomplished, brilliant, broadly educated, careful, creative, dedicated, enterprising, forceful, a good communicator, helpful, independent, insightful, persistent, personable, productive, a team player, trustworthy, a world-class thinker An outstanding candidate will have many characteristics  Independent  Creative  Insightful  Enterprising  Accomplished  Brilliant  Forceful  World-class thinker  Productive  Team player  Helpful  Good communicator  Personable  Dedicated  Persistent  Careful  Broadly educated  Trustworthy

18 The Boy Scout Law A Scout is: Trustworthy Loyal Helpful Friendly Courteous Kind Obedient Cheerful Thrifty Brave Clean Reverent

19 What were they thinking? “She reminds me of Princess Diana in many ways.” “There is no obvious reason why she shouldn’t be hired.” “I guess by now you can tell from my letter that I love her.” “Her enthusiasm and dedication to serving others with a high quality orientation has improved the informational awareness of the campus environment as a whole.” “A mathematics student, a former ballet dancer, a competitive fencer and an a cappella vocalist, she continually exposes herself to challenging circumstances and experiences.”

20 How can I do the right thing? Be self-aware: even the right-minded may stumble Include detailed information about applicant’s accomplishments and why they are excellent Highlight the characteristics that matter most in the job Devote full attention to the task

21 Further reading and resources The Hunter College Gender Equity Project: M. Biernat, M. Manis and T.E. Nelson, “Stereotypes and Standards of Judgment,” J. of Personality and Social Psych. 60, (1991) N. Porter and F.L. Geis, “Women and nonverbal leadership cues: When seeing is not believing,” in Gender and nonverbal behavior (Ed. by C. Mayo & N. Henley), 1981 M. Norton, J.A. Vandello and J.M. Darley, “Casuistry and Social Category Bias,” J. of Personality and Social Psych. 87, (2004) C. Wenneras and A. Wold, “Nepotism and sexism in peer review,” Nature 387, (1997) M. Heilman, A.S. Wallen, D. Fuchs and M.M. Tamkins, “Penalties for Success: Reactions to Women Who Succeed at Male Gender-Typed Tasks,” J. Applied Psychology 89, (2004) F. Trix & C. Psenka, “Exploring the color of glass: letters of recommendation for female and male medical faculty,” Discourse & Society 14, (2003)


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