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Gender differences in recommendation letters for postdoctoral fellowships in geoscience

Nature Geoscience volume 9, pages 805808 (2016) | Download Citation


Gender disparities in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics, including the geosciences, are well documented and widely discussed1,2. In the geosciences, despite receiving 40% of doctoral degrees, women hold less than 10% of full professorial positions3. A significant leak in the pipeline occurs during postdoctoral years4, so biases embedded in postdoctoral processes, such as biases in recommendation letters, may be deterrents to careers in geoscience for women. Here we present an analysis of an international data set of 1,224 recommendation letters, submitted by recommenders from 54 countries, for postdoctoral fellowships in the geosciences over the period 2007–2012. We examine the relationship between applicant gender and two outcomes of interest: letter length and letter tone. Our results reveal that female applicants are only half as likely to receive excellent letters versus good letters compared to male applicants. We also find no evidence that male and female recommenders differ in their likelihood to write stronger letters for male applicants over female applicants. Our analysis also reveals significant regional differences in letter length, with letters from the Americas being significantly longer than any other region, whereas letter tone appears to be distributed equivalently across all world regions. These results suggest that women are significantly less likely to receive excellent recommendation letters than their male counterparts at a critical juncture in their career.

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K.D. would like to thank S. Pfirman for the discussion and guidelines surrounding the initial stages of this study. D.L.P. would like to thank J. Boyce for assistance with statistical modelling. This paper is contribution number 8044 from Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia University.

Author information


  1. Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia University, New York 10964, USA

    • Kuheli Dutt
  2. Teachers College, Columbia University, New York 10027, USA

    • Danielle L. Pfaff
    • , Ariel F. Bernstein
    • , Joseph S. Dillard
    •  & Caryn J. Block


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K.D. initiated this study; K.D. coded the letters and did a preliminary descriptive analysis; D.L.P. analysed the data; A.F.B. coded a subset of the letters; J.S.D. assisted with statistical analysis; C.J.B. served in an advisory capacity; K.D. and D.L.P. co-wrote the paper, with all authors contributing towards discussing and interpreting the results and refining the paper.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Correspondence to Kuheli Dutt.

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