Dean’s forum confronts HLS gender divide


The panel featured (from left) Prof. Elizabeth Warren, Prof. Guhan Subramanian, 2L Charlotte Sanders, 3L Adam Neufeld, Prof. Todd Rakoff, and Prof. Lani Guinier.

Two days before the scheduled release of the “Study on Women’s Experiences at Harvard Law School,” Dean Elena Kagan initiated a Dean’s Forum on gender and the classroom, inviting Harvard Law School faculty and students to voice their ideas and concerns about what the study says about women’s experiences at HLS.

Three-L Adam Neufeld’s and 2L Charlotte Sanders’s findings (See “Study: women get lower grades than men, take more public interest jobs,” page 1), which they provided in a rough outline at the forum, reinforce previously held notions by many faculty and students that women are less apt to talk in class, are on average less confident than men upon entering HLS and even less confident than men upon graduating from HLS, and on average have lower grade point averages than men.

Professor Elizabeth Warren, one of the panelists at the forum, weighed in on the findings. “There are differences among students and we have always known there are differences among students,” she said. “The question now is whether there are systematic differences among students” based on race, culture or gender. Her answer: “I would be surprised if there were not,” since students grow up in such different environments.

Warren, who is known among students as a genius of the Socratic method, said it was ultimately the responsibility of professors to make certain that students, both male and female, are actively involved in classroom discussion.

Professor Todd Rakoff, also a panelist, agreed that professors are the responsible party for controlling classroom discussion, though he was skeptical that the Socratic method alone would yield the best results. “I completely agree with Elizabeth that it is the responsibility of the professor to take charge of the situation, I just don’t think there is only one way to do it,” he said.

“If you wait thirty to forty-five seconds for a volunteer, you will get a different set of volunteers,” Rakoff said, to which Warren interrupted asking if there was any data to back that claim up. Several audience members, including Professor Martha Minow, who was not a panelist, shook their heads yes, at which time Warren conceded the point.

Kagan moved the discussion to why there are differences among males and females in terms of the study’s findings. Rakoff pondered whether it was the law itself and how it is taught. He explained, “The law does have a point of view. It is often harder-nosed and more combative. It is based more on hard-nosed logic and less on feelings.”

This drew a quick rebuttal by Professor Lani Guinier, who said she disagreed that this was an issue about the law or how legal education is taught. “We are doing all of our students a disservice by insisting on one particular way to approach problems,” she said. “Why is every class measured by the particular phenomenon of Socratic teaching?”

She continued, “I think women . . . feel deeply alienated from their law school experience. This is a problem we have to tackle and take seriously,” including the emphasis we place on certain subjects. “As one professor said,” she continued, “‘We do a wonderful job in our first-year courses teaching students how to practice before the New Deal.'”

At one point Kagan called on Assistant Professor Guhan Subramanian, who has taught at the Harvard Business School, to offer any connections between the two schools. “It is very familiar,” he said about the study’s findings and how they compare to the Business School. Citing a study that was done at HBS on gender differences, Subramanian said, “They found results consistent with the overall picture Charlotte and Adam have found.”

“The common wisdom is that the Business School is a male-dominated place.”

As for what the study means for how to approach the gender problem at HLS, Neufeld said, “The study itself provides some thought and a little guidance, but it provides no roadmap” for beginning to fix the problem. He hoped the study would spark a conversation among Law School students and faculty.

Neufeld did note that the study highlighted the lack of experimentation at the Law School in terms of class structure and how students are graded. “One of the problems we found in this study was that there was not much to compare. There is not much difference between a three-hour and an eight-hour exam.”

Warren adamantly disagreed with Neufeld’s earlier point that the study offers no guidance. “I think Adam is too modest for his own data. I agree it is about conversation, but I don’t know what more the data needs to say,” she said. “It seems like a slam dunk.”

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