How to Get a Kick-Ass Letter of Recommendation...As a Woman

How to Ask For a Great Recommendation Letter
by Lisa Crocco
Photos Bloguettes | December 12, 2016
Are you currently applying for jobs and beginning to ask for letters of recommendation? You may be being totally shortchanged, and here’s how to fix it.
According to recent studies, women are far less likely than men to receive glowing letters of recommendation. Generally, it's an industry-wide phenomenon, but the unconscious gender bias is heavily present in STEM fields, the medical industry, and geoscience. And what’s more, it’s not just male employers, professors, and supervisors who exhibit this bias—women do it, too.

The study in Nature Geoscience states that “Implicit biases can surface via the way applicants are described in recommendation letters, with women being described as less confident and forceful….and receiving fewer ‘standout’ adjectives such as superb and brilliant, and more ‘grindstone’ adjectives such as hardworking and diligent.” Women are typically described as communal, while men are seen as having agency and independence. Unsurprisingly, these latter characteristics perform far better in the selection process. 

So what’s a smart girl to do? Smash the patriarchy, obviously. But in regards to the short-term goal of simply getting the kick-ass letter of recommendation you deserve, here are some simplified ways to help.

Weigh Your Best Options on Who to Ask 

Asking a mentor or someone you truly trust is different than asking your immediate boss, team leader, or professor. Even though your boss may know a lot about your experience and work ethic, that does not necessarily guarantee they will write a smashing letter of recommendation for you.

If you trust a mentor enough for them to provide you with work and life advice, you should trust them enough to give you a fair and accurate letter of recommendation. A mentor’s purpose is to help you succeed and writing the best reference letter comes along with the role. 

Provide the Writer with a Cheat Sheet

A busy boss or professor probably doesn’t have the time or energy to spend hours digging into your files and recalling all of the surely fabulous things you’ve accomplished. When they agree to write you a letter of recommendation, do them (and yourself) a huge favor by providing them a little cheat sheet with a list of your accomplishments, metrics, statistics, etc., that they can literally copy and paste into their letter. This will hopefully ensure they touch upon the areas you want them to—making your letter stronger.

GET PERSONAL

Besides creating a cheat sheet, you should also spend some time chatting with the writer before they write the recommendation. Explain to them why you are applying for so-and-so school, program, or job, and why it is important to you. Hearing from you personally may inspire them to include those tidbits in the letter. If you seem passionate about it, hopefully they will convey that in writing.

Give them a good amount of time to write the letter. You don’t want them to rush to throw together a half-assed letter if crunched for time. Ensure they are aware of the deadline you need the letter of recommendation submitted by. Don’t be afraid to follow-up and gently remind them the deadline is approaching. Also, provide them with an addressed and stamped envelope to save them some time.

This may go without saying, but be sure to write them a thank-you note for taking their time to write the letter, especially if you get what you want. Nourishing good relationships with those you look up to is never a bad idea. 

Follow the Girl Gang Code with reference letters

The next time you are asked to write a letter of recommendation for a woman, take a long look at it after writing and ensure that it’s fair. Compare it against the letters you have written on behalf of men who have asked you. Do you see your own unconscious gender bias poking through? Are there words or areas that could be stronger or more accurate?

And if you know a fellow female coworker who is applying to jobs or programs and you feel you can honestly provide her with an awesome letter of recommendation, offer to write one for her. Help her out.

I’m not telling you to simply give outstanding letters of recommendations to women who do not deserve them. But if they do, ensure you’re giving them the best. Give them what you hope someone would give you.

Any letter of rec nightmares? Any reference letter successes? Share your experience in the comments!