Faculty responds to study on gender disparity at HLS


Prof. Carol Steiker speaks at the gender panel on Tuesday.
Prof. Heather Gerken, Student Life Counseling Director Mark Byers and a group of students made up a panel that discussed gender disparity at HLS in light of the recent Study.

Responding to the recent study on women’s experiences at HLS that noted significant gender disparities in classroom participation, academics, student life and career choices, Professors Carol Steiker, Heather Gerken, Daniel Coquillette, OPIA director Alexa Shabecoff and Director of the Office of Student Life Counseling Mark Byers addressed the study in a panel on February 24th.

“This is the most comprehensive study of issues related to women that has ever been done,” asserted Steiker, who served as moderator. “It’s sort of sad but also inspiring that it was done by students.”

The most notable result of the study, what Byers referred to as a “symbolic issue,” is that women are less likely to volunteer in class.

“Women are underrepresented in terms of the top talking category,” commented Adam Neufeld, one of the authors of the study. “Women are overrepresented in terms of those who didn’t volunteer at all. The classroom environment is the main forum for formal legal education and what happens there may have implications for a lot of other areas.”

In a joking solution to this problem, Steiker suggested that “if they can put a man on the moon, why can’t they put them all there?” Gerken had first formulated this thought in terms of suggesting to the admissions committee a policy of not admitting men.

“The study shows that women are nicer, talk much less in class, and are going to do good in the world,” explained Gerken.

On the flip side, the historic exclusion of women might explain part of the cause of the problem.

“There are brutal facts about Harvard Law School that help explain why we are where we are today,” explained Coquillette. “Out of a school that is 200 years old, women have been in school for only 50 years. Yale admitted women in 1886, Harvard Law School in 1950.” Moreover, after assessing the numbers that there were originally only about 14 or 15 women per class of 500 students, Coquillette asserted “When we are talking about women becoming part of this school, we are only talking about something that occurred in the last twenty years.”

The Law School’s exclusion of women has not been fully corrected, however. In 1988, the percentage of female students in the class has flatlined (at approximately 40oe as the percentage of African Americans did in 1974 (at 10oe and Asian Americans in 1996. In other words, Harvard Law School has not made any significant steps in the last eight years toward increasing diversity.

“This is a school that has set its face against women for more than 80f its history,” asserted Coquillette. “My chart looks like someone who just died – it’s completely flat.”

Additional suggestions regarding the cause of the problem expand the dilemma to be a societal issue, and not merely an HLS problem.

“The broader question is how do we fit the law to its students?” asked Gerken. “How do we train lawyers, and women lawyers, to go out to the world which is not a good fit?”

Indeed, Byers emphasized that the self-selection of Law School students might influence the results of the study, since the men who choose to go into law are themselves more verbose.

“There is a difference between the men and women who choose law,” opined Byers. “Men who go into law are more significantly verbal than other men, which is not true of women. I’ve often thought for many men at the Law School, law school is like athletics. It gives them a kind of competitive advantage, and their verbal skills serve various purposes in the classroom which may not be as true as much for women.”

In discussing the difference between public interest placement, that women make up 55f LIPP participants, Shabecoff believed that this too was a reflection of a societal problem, and not just an issue at Harvard Law. Shabecoff stated that there were four motivations for going into public interest – pay, prestige, taking care of others, and work/life/family issues – which may all explain the greater proportions of women in public interest, in society as well as in Harvard.

“It’s a big societal issue more than a Harvard Law School problem,” asserted Shabecoff. “How do we help men and women see supporting the family as a team effort so that men don’t have to be the breadwinner? How do we correct the balance between women feeling more responsible for taking care of the kids than men?”

One specific concern of the faculty was not to read this study as an exclusive problem of women, but also consider its implications about men.

“A difference can cut many different ways and the report needs to be read very carefully to make sure it is not misinterpreted,” asserted Byers. “Does a difference imply a deficit and if it does, whose deficit?” As an analogy, Byers noted that a disproportionate percentage of women take advantage of counseling, without necessarily indicating that men do not need counseling, but rather that women are possibly smarter in utilizing their resources.

“The study could just as easily say that men fail to make use of the clinical programs,” Byers stated. “Much depends on your assessment of the material.”

The broader question which the study left unanswered is what to do about the problem once it has been documented. And to this, the faculty members were uncertain.

“We don’t know the answers,” commented Gerken. “We don’t have answers as an institution, we don’t have answers as individual faculty members.”

One suggestion was that the very act of publishing the study was certain to engender change. Now that the administration is informed of the problem it will be certain to take action to admit more women, believed some of the faculty members.

“Everytime this school has had major difference in demographics, there has been a change in curriculum,” explained Coquillette. “I can predict with total confidence that this study that has been released today is going to change the school. Over time, the school is going to change profoundly because you are here and work like this is being done. And I say ‘great.'”

The admission of additional women to the Law School will have a dramatic impact on the experiences of women at HLS, asserted Gerken.

“There is this thing called the tipping point, that it does make a difference to have more students of color and more women,” Gerken stated. Looking at the University of Michigan as a historic example of what happened when more women were admitted, Gerken explained “The women kicked the men’s ass.”

Regarding public interest, Shabecoff suggested continued and increased public interest funding that will correct the greater societal problem that men do not go into public interest because of the pay gap and their need to be the breadwinners. Regarding classroom participation, Gerken suggested alternate forms of education instead of trying to fit women into the Socratic method. But above the specific suggestions, Gerken advocated increased student outcry that this problem be resolved.

“This study reminds us that everyone has a collective responsibility in making this difference,” enjoined Gerken. “Under the new leadership we’re in, we’ll see differences in way this world works. What I hope what you’ll do is create a ruckus. The empirical stories are actually so powerful that I think that it might engender change that we haven’t been able to do thus far.”

The full report is available here.

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