Tips for Avoiding Unconscious Racial Bias in Your Reference Letters

Written by
Kelly McSweeney

Jun 4, 2019

Jun 4, 2019 • by Kelly McSweeney

Asmeret Berhe has read hundreds of letters of recommendation for researchers in her group at University of California Merced. While reading one particular letter, she was struck by the letter’s underlying tone of racial bias. It was clear that the person writing the letter thought that the student was an exceptional candidate for the position.

“They praised this student in every possible way,” Berhe said.

The student was described as hard-working, great at analyzing difficult data, and a team player who was willing to help out with a variety of projects. The student had published more papers than other people in her group and was praised for being a deep thinker and excellent all around.

“But every single one of those comments was couched in a statement that either suggested or said outright that it was surprising that the student is like this, even though the student was not from the U.S., the student is not American, the student is not from here,” Berhe explained.

While the letter praised the student, it also emphasized that the student’s excellence was not what you would expect based on their background. Even though the letter writer was clearly impressed with the student, the repeated references to the student’s background introduced doubt.

“Why would you underestimate somebody you think so highly of? It’s just weirdly contradictory,” Berhe says.

These days, Berhe says, there are typically more than a hundred applicants for an open faculty position. If 20 of those applicants are well-qualified for the job, the letters of reference can distinguish them from each other.

“We put a lot of stock in those letters, everybody does, and those letters can make or break any application,” she says.

In the best case scenario, a racially biased letter of reference could raise unnecessary doubt about the applicant’s ability to do the job, based on their background. Worse, it could cost the position for somebody who is actually the best person for the job. Frustrated by the unconscious bias in the letter, Berhe reached out to her colleagues for feedback and quickly got together with fellow earth scientist Sora Kim and made a plan of action.

Kim explains, “Asmeret and I were lamenting some recent letters of reference we read for people of color and decided to channel our energy into the ‘guide for avoiding racial bias in writing letters of reference.’ We built off of a previously published guide for avoiding gender bias [by the University of Arizona]. Given the research and scholarship related to academic inequities for people of color as well as the racial disparities in academia, I felt this type of guide was needed to help well intentioned faculty write letters of reference.”

Together, the two earth scientists created the guide, which is now posted on their group websites, as well as the Earth Science Women’s Network’s website. The handy 1-page guide is now spreading through social media.

“It seemed like it resonated. Since the minute it was posted, it touched a chord,” Berhe says.

The guide emphasizes that reference letters should focus on a candidate’s professional accomplishments and avoid mentioning personal information that isn’t relevant for the application.

The full guide is available here and the authors encourage everyone to distribute it widely. Learn more about Kim’s ecogeochemistry lab and Berhe’s biogeochemistry lab at UC Merced.