The Power Of A Good Reference
Finweek English|22 October 2020
The Power Of A Good Reference
Recent research suggests that reference letters can help solve unemployment – and close the gender gap
Johan Fourie

One of the many hidden tasks of an academic is to write reference letters. And lots of them. Almost all students need this for their first job application, and who better to write one than the professor who has read their work and witnessed their progress over the last few years?

Do these letters make a difference? One school of thought takes the view that they provide little additional information to what a potential employer can already – and more objectively – glean from an academic record and CV. They are, at best, a reflection of the information already provided and can, at worst, only distort the very clear signal that something like an academic record provides.

In some cases, reference letters may even expose the biases of the referees: such as in the use of gendered language. A 2019 paper in the Journal of Surgical Education studies 311 reference letters for a transplant surgery fellowship. It finds that male applicant letters were more likely to contain terms, such as superb, intelligent and exceptional, while female applicant letters were more likely to contain terms, such as compassionate, calm and delightful. Male applicants were also more likely to be described as ‘future leaders’. The paper argues that such letters may explain the gender bias in the field.

Should reference letters rather be done away with? Not so fast. Most unemployed South Africans did not complete secondary education and have limited or no work experience. This creates what economists call an information asymmetry between the employer and employee: the employee has more information (about their own skills and work ethic) than the employer. Employers do not simply want to hire anyone: they want a good match.

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22 October 2020