Sex-role stereotypes in letters of recommendation for college applicants

Verena Ully Hirsch, Fordham University


This study investigated the stereotypes in letters of reference written by high school counselors for students applying to college. Masculine stereotype was defined by a preponderance of statements referring to traits such as ambition, self-motivation, independence, ability, leadership, and action orientation. Feminine stereotype was defined by the preponderance of statements referring to traits such as social competence, moral and ethical standards, nurturance, caring, and personal attributes not related to instrumental behavior or academic performance. The sample consisted of 310 letters of reference written by male and female high school counselors for male and female applicants to college. A system for scoring masculine and feminine stereotypes was developed. Students' academic competence was measured by class standing, grade point average, and SAT scores. Only 43% of all counselors wrote stereotypic letters of reference. Furthermore, male counselors did not show more extensive stereotypy than did female counselors. The male stereotype was more often present in letters written for high scholastic competence male students, than for low scholastic competence male students. However, the extent of female stereotyping of female students did not differ between high and low scholastically competent women. The difference between the proportion of masculine scale items and the feminine scale items present in the letters written for accepted vs. rejected students was significant, albeit small. Letters written for low scholastically competent students contained a significantly larger proportion of feminine stereotypic statements than letters written for high scholastically competent students. A significant interaction was found between scholastic competence and students' gender in relation to the masculine scale items. A stepwise regression predicting acceptance from all the other variables indicated that only students' scholastic competence significantly predicted acceptance to college. Admission committees may be well advised to pay closer attention to actual measures of scholastic competence than to letters of reference when evaluating women applicants for admission of college. Finally, future studies of stereotyping in letters of reference should carefully examine differences in demographic and personality characteristics of high school counselor who write or do not write stereotypic letters of reference for their students.

Subject Area

Social psychology|Educational psychology

Recommended Citation

Hirsch, Verena Ully, "Sex-role stereotypes in letters of recommendation for college applicants" (1989). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI8918445.