Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Too Liked

Apparently I 'came close' to getting a significant award in the not-so-distant past, and the person who nominated me talked to me recently about why I didn't get the award. He had acquired inside information about the selection process, and wanted to share this with me so that I didn't feel too bad about not getting the award.

In fact, I don't feel bad at all about not getting the award. Awards are nice, but I don't have my happiness or self-esteem tied to the acquisition of honors. I suppose it's comforting to know that I was at least close, and therefore deemed almost-excellent, but at the same time, I find the reason for the close-but-no-award decision a bit puzzling, albeit somewhat understandable.

The main problem with my nomination file was that the letter writers did not seem to be 'objective enough'. The evidence for this was that, based on what they wrote in their letters, they seemed to like me. I didn't see the letters of course, but apparently at least one was quite 'warm', as if written by a friend.

I said to the nominating person, who says he wants to nominate me again next year, "So next time you're going to ask for letters from people who dislike me?".

There's no point in reading too deeply into this incomplete information that may or may not reflect the real reason why I wasn't selected, but that isn't going to stop me from wondering about the perils of being likable.

I should hasten to note that I am not universally liked, nor is global affection a personal goal of mine. Some people like me, some don't. The people who agreed to write letters for me were likely to be in the former category. For whatever reason, the words they chose must have gone beyond a dry summary of my awesome research and betrayed some affection for me as a person. There are certainly worse problems to have than to be liked by colleagues.

Perhaps the 'warmth' exhibited by some letters made me seem like a less serious scientist. It seems to have created doubt in minds of those on the awards committee about the objectivity of the letter writers. So maybe my nominator needs to find people who don't know me but who respect my work. It is surely possible to admire someone's research but have no particular opinion about their personality. It's surely easier to get people to write nice, long, detailed letters if they are writing for someone they know and like, but then apparently there is the danger that the letters will seem to lack objectivity.

Here's where I put on the gender lenses, but I will do so today only for the sake of discussion, as I don't have a strong opinion in this case as to whether my gender was a factor. But consider this:

If letters of reference referred in a warm and friendly way to a male scientist as being a really nice person, would the scientific accomplishments of that scientist be diminished or would he be seen as a great guy who somehow managed to do science and be a nice person? And is your answer the same if the scientist is a woman? Discuss (20 points).

23 comments:

Anonymous said...

Studies of recommendation letters submitted on behalf of applicants for faculty positions in academic medicine reveal that letters written about female applicants are (1) shorter and (2) more likely to contain comments about personal qualities than those written about male applicants. This was true regardless of the sex of the letter writer. (see http://das.sagepub.com/cgi/reprint/14/2/191).

So, your colleague could perhaps alert letter-writers to this potential bias...

Anne said...

I'm new here (hello! 21 year old girl about to embark on a PhD course in Chemical Biology) and my gut response to this post as I read was exactly the question you posed at the end. No - I don't think the same "problem" would have been as decisive for a male candidate. Which is just frustrating to no end.

Also, note to the committee: there is no such thing as objectivity, particularly in the case of one person writing about another. I'm annoyed on your behalf!

I've been giving a lot of thought to what it means to be a woman venturing into the (scary!) world of science, so I think I'm going to give this blog the old bookmark and pay attention!

Dr. Confused said...

You've talked about the gender-related issues of those reading the letters, but what about those writing them? I don't remember where I read it, but I have read that people writing letters of reference for women are more likely to focus on personal qualities and less likely to focus on professional accomplishments than the same people writing letters of reference for men.

Mrs. CH said...

I actually think that if a letter was written about a male with comments on their personality, many would think that the letter-writer was trying to make up for something the candidate was lacking.

On the other hand, if the letter is written for a woman, it is almost expected to have some notes on their personality as well. So, it wouldn't take away from their research skills, etc..

I have no idea if that's what really happens - it just popped into mind when I read your last paragraph.

Peggy said...

An oft cited study on letters of recommendation for applicants to medical faculty positions found that letters for women were more likely to emphasize their "niceness" while letters for men were more likely to focus on their technical qualifications.

See Discourse & Society, Vol. 14, No. 2, 191-220 (2003)
Exploring the Color of Glass: Letters of Recommendation for Female and Male Medical Faculty
FRANCES TRIX, CAROLYN PSENKA, WAYNE STATE UNIVERSITY

Abstract: This study examines over 300 letters of recommendation for medical faculty at a large American medical school in the mid-1990s, using methods from corpus and discourse analysis, with the theoretical perspective of gender schema from cognitive psychology. Letters written for female applicants were found to differ systematically from those written for male applicants in the extremes of length, in the percentages lacking in basic features, in the percentages with doubt raisers (an extended category of negative language, often associated with apparent commendation), and in frequency of mention of status terms. Further, the most common semantically grouped possessive phrases referring to female and male applicants (`her teaching,' `his research') reinforce gender schema that tend to portray women as teachers and students, and men as researchers and professionals.

Candid Engineer said...

I preface the following by saying that I'm not sure gender played a role in your not-quite-but-almost-excellence, at least it's not obvious to me.

In general, I think it's interesting that male scientists (esp. successful ones) are often assumed to be jerks, and it's considered a pleasant surprise or a 'bonus' when a male scientist is actually a nice guy. Conversely, I find that female professors are often assumed to be nice people (and then people are in for a real shock when they find the female professors who are decidedly NOT nice).

Unfortunately, most of the successful female professors I know are not nice people, which makes me wonder if they had to be that way to get where they are. It also makes them less-appealing role models.

Anyway, for these reasons, if I had read your letters, I would have thought, Thank God- she's a nice person. And then I would have forked over the award.

steph said...

Weird. I didn't know being liked was bad. In fact, I was under the impression that getting smart people above me in the pecking order to like me and respect my research is good. Should I start throwing in insults to professors as I show them my posters or chat with them at conferences?

John V said...

I've been on a few fellows, awards, and medals committees, and I'd interpret the remarks as meaning the letters lack sufficient specific accomplishments, and instead were overloaded in projecting your warm personality and effusive in praise.

It is only a plus to be liked by letter writers, the more liked the better.

The success of a single nomination is often statistically random, turning on a single more or less well-informed remark when it is time to vote.

Perhaps there is an element of stereotypes in play, but that is harder to guess. Your husband being in the same department can invoke stereotypes among poorly informed members of the committee or those pushing other candidates. Views of women as helpers, supportive, or dedicated to wider educational issues at the expense of more specialized work sometimes brings to mind negative stereotypes in awards committees, but being just well-liked by letter-writers should not be a handicap.

Anonymous said...

I think about this issue when writing tenure/promotion letters. At times i refer to someone I know quite well as Dr. SoandSo, to avoid the impression at some University level committee that I am not objective.

It is an interesting idea that being well-liked in addition to being respected might be a disadvantage. Luckily, in most aspects of personal and professional life, being well-liked is a BIG advantage. Being nice pays off.

Mark P

Kevin said...

I rarely comment about the "niceness" of people I recommend, male or female. About as far as I'll go is to comment on how well they cooperate with others on a team project, should they have done a team project under my supervision.

I do look for warning signs in letters that someone is impossible to deal with, but don't regard effusive praise for their social skills as either a plus or a minus in most letters.

The female professors I have known (in my departments or as collaborators) have all been nice enough people who are mainly focused on the work at hand (research or teaching). I've only met one who had to "grow a backbone" to avoid getting jerked around by students or administrators, though others have commented on the difference in tactics used by students when trying to manipulate a female professor than when trying to manipulate a male one.

Of course, most of the female professors I've dealt with in the past 20 years have been engineering or biology professors and doing highly respected research, so my sample may be biased. I've seen more extremes (of niceness and nastiness) in non-faculty administrative staff.

Like John V, I'd interpret the comment not as comments about niceness being harmful, but too much emphasis on that at the expense of information about the criteria for the award could be interpreted as not having anything good to say about the research, teaching, or whatever else the award was supposed to be for.

Phrasing can make a difference too.
Saying "I really like FSP" is much less useful than saying "All her students really like working with FSP".

aceon said...

In my field niceness is generally a plus. We do extended field work, often with people from other institutions. If nobody wants you along on field work, you are screwed. Being well liked may not help me win any awards, but it will help me do science!

Comrade Physioprof said...

I have absolutely no doubt that the letters would have been perceived differently had they been written about a male science professor, and probably also written differently.

Ms.PhD said...

Check out www.raiseproject.org and see how often women have ever won this particular award. Would also be interesting to know how many women were on the review committee (any)? Statistics demonstrate that these things matter a lot for how women candidates are viewed in award contests.

better luck next time

Anonymous said...

Hmmm. . . . your letter writer's appraisal of your science was tainted because they liked you, and hence you're science might not be as strong. While for a man being a nice guy and a good scientist would be a bonus.

Yep, I agree, you being nice is a disadvantage for you as a female but would be considered an advantage for a similarly respected male colleague.

Curt F. said...

Do we know the gender of the letter-writers?

What if the author of the letter which was not "objective enough" was a woman? Under this scenario, maybe it was sexist for the voting members of the award committee to discount the letter because of its "warm" tone. (Do men tend to write letters which focus less on someone's personality and perceived talents than on specific accomplishments?)

Lastly, I wanted to end my comment with some quote about the perils of speculation, but when I was looking online, the only quotations that I found on-point were obviously sexist in their diction. It's an irony that I couldn't resist sharing.

"A speculator is a man who observes the future, and acts before it occurs."
- Baruch

"Time destroys the speculation of men, but it confirms nature."
- Cicero

"There are two times in a man's life when he should not speculate: when he can't afford it, and when he can." - Mark Twain

Anonymous said...

I have been nominated thrice for a teaching prize at my university but have never won. A (male) friend was on the panel in the most recent case and said that the student recommendations were seen as "too friendly" and hence not very useful. The idea being that I get nominated because I am just such a nice softie. The fact of the matter is that the average grade I have given out is amongst the lowest (in the already low) maths department and several of the student letter writers took the most hated class in the department with me!

Bah!

Margaret L said...

Several people have mentioned that letters differ for male and female candidates, but it's also still possible that letters are read differently. The experiment would be easy to do: have people evaluate the exact same letter with a male or female name attached.

I would guess that FSP's speculation is correct. With a male name, people would interpret effusive praise and warmth (need not be explicit mention of niceness) as liking the person because he's good. Whereas with a female candidate, it would be interpreted as thinking she's good because they like her.

Curt F. said...

Margaret L. - Other people in this very comment thread have made very different guesses from yours: Mrs CH said "I actually think that if a letter was written about a male with comments on their personality, many would think that the letter-writer was trying to make up for something the candidate was lacking.".

I guess we have to do the experiment to destroy the speculation and confirm the nature though.

John V said...

This discussion strikes me as trying to turn a women's stereotypical advantage into a disadvantage.

To the extent that many of us think in stereotypes, I don't think the stereotype of women as well-liked and sympatico is a problem. The problem is when lazy or prejudiced people think women do not accomplish as much as men or are less effective than men because they may be prejudged less scientifically-minded, passive or distracted by family responsibilities.

This is just my guess, and I'm no expert in such matters, but the idea of being judged as wanting for being too well-liked seems off base, at best it is a detail in a more complex situation.

geomom said...

Sorry FSP, I know you don't really care deep down, but I think it sucks that you didn't get an award for a stupid reason.

Anonymous said...

Maybe they just didn't trust your letters as much, because your letter writers seemed to like you personally. A lot of times, for example, the advisor's letter or a close colleague's letter is not given much weight because of the same reason.

butterflywings said...

*Click*. I had almost the opposite issue, in that I felt my evaluation at work was *too* purely factual. As in it said 'Butterflywings has done x and y tasks' and that was it, not saying I had such and such qualities as a person.

I was almost a little upset, although I didn't say so.

This may actually be a more acceptable style to male reviewers (who decide if I get nice stuff like raises), though, from the sound of it.

butterflywings said...

And - yes, relatedly, there is far more expectation of women to be nice and socially skilled. A guy has to make far less effort to be seen as a good team player and all round nice person.

Oh, and better luck next time FSP.