Recommendation Letters

Letters of Recommendation and Solicitations – Gendered Wording

When writing letters of recommendation for women for jobs, awards and prizes, it is important to keep your language as gender-neutral as possible.  Adjectives used to describe potential candidates can clearly influence perceptions about that person.  There have been a number of studies which show that recommendation letter writers often conform to traditional gender schemas when describing candidates, with female candidates described in more communal (social or emotive) terms while male candidates in more agentic (active or assertive) terms.  Letters of recommendation for men are typically longer, with more ability, standout, and research words; while letters for women are shorter and contain more teaching and grindstone words, in addition to references to personal attributes. Examples include the studies by  Madera et al. (2009) and Schmader et al. (2007)

Below is a list of adjectives that fall into each of the categories discussed in Schmader et al. (2007):


  • Standout words: excellen*, superb, outstanding, unique, exceptional, unparalleled, *est, most, wonderful, terrific*, fabulous, magnificent, remarkable, extraordinar*, amazing, supreme*, unmatched
  • Ability words: talent*, intell*, smart*, skill*, ability, genius, brilliant*, bright*, brain*, aptitude, gift*, capacity, propensity, innate, flair, knack, clever*, expert*, proficient*, capable, adept*, able, competent, natural*, inherent*, instinct*, adroit*, creative*, insight*, analytical
  • Research words: research*, data, study, studies, experiment*, scholarship, test*, result*, finding*, publication*, publish*, vita*, method*, scien*, grant*, fund*, manuscript*, project*, journal*, theor*, discover*, contribution*


  • Grindstone words: hardworking, conscientious, depend*, meticulous, thorough, diligen*, dedicate*, careful, reliab*, effort*, assiduous, trust*, responsib*, methodical, industrious, busy, work*, persist*, organiz*, disciplin*
  • Teaching words: teach, instruct, educat*, train*, mentor, supervis*, adviser, counsellor, syllabus, course*, class, service, colleague, citizen, communicate*, lectur*, student*, present*, rapport
Note: * indicates that any word containing the letter string that precedes or follows the asterisk should be counted.

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