I’m curious about whether letters of recommendation for students on the market are read centrally–say by the supervisor or placement officer–in your department. If so, how do you give feedback on letters. Sometimes people in my department treat it like a freedom of expression problem, but that can’t be the right way to think about it.
While it may not be possible to give unsolicited “feedback” in any direct manner to a faculty member about his or her letter of recommendation, there are other means than monitoring the content of letters to improve best practices. The department chair, along with the placement officer, can reach out to faculty in constructive ways, including holding a “best practices” session to discuss a range of placement issues, including how such letters are best constructed. The aims, I think, should be both to help the individual students and to convey an appropriate sense of the department’s training and educational strengths. I think we all understand that there might be resistance if the session were perceived as a “how to” session, but a larger strategy session aimed at getting the best placement results could have really salutary effects, intended and unintended. The session can consist of constructive conversation among faculty about what information is appropriate, relevant, and genuinely helpful in letters of recommendation. Most central to your concerns, it might also be helpful to make faculty aware of some of the existing literature regarding gender differences in content of letters.
Here are two places to start:
Trix, F. & Psenka, C. (2003). “Exploring the color of glass: Letters of recommendation
for female and male medical faculty.” Discourse & Society, 14(2), 191-220.