THE “STUDY ON WOMEN’S Experiences at Harvard Law School” should shock faculty and students alike with its stinging evidence that experiences of women and men at the Law School are not only vastly different, but that these differences are so stark on two things that arguably matter the most: grades and participation.
The adage that grades don’t matter is certainly true, up to a point. Grades determine which firms give a student’s resume a hurried, and perhaps painful look, and which firms are eager to move the interview beyond the hotel room at the Charles Hotel to the spacious offices in San Francisco or Houston. Grades are an essential factor in clerkships, Supreme Court to district court. Furthermore, grades remain an essential component of the Law Review competition, which, in turn, enhances one’s chance to land that prestigious firm job in New York City or clerkship with Justice Antonin Scalia.
And not only do grades matter for firms, but many public interest organizations are looking for the elite of the elite law schools. The Study reports that women take more public interest jobs, but the truth about grades and which sex is more likely to get what means that some public interest jobs are not available to many women at this school in proportion to men.
The truth about grades and how they can affect one’s career is troublesome for the equality of women in this country. If arguably the top law school in the nation, if not the world, has a gender disparity problem in terms of grades, then other law schools are certainly having similar troubles. A recent study proves this is the case at the University of Pennsylvania.
This is not to say a woman will necessarily be stifled because she received a “B” in Torts instead of an “A.” Certainly women and men have risen above their law school performances to achieve greatness, whether in terms of legal influence, power, fame or just raking in cash. But on average, if one assumes that grades matter for how far a group advances, and there is a reason for grades, then it is worrisome that on average women fare worse than men at HLS.
Just as frightening as this disparity is the silence of women in Law School classrooms. The report states that a male student was “50% more likely to speak voluntarily at least once during a class meeting than was a female student” and that women make up “a significantly smaller percentage of frequent talkers, those students who speak three or more times in one class.”
Women are consciously choosing to let their male peers do most of the talking in the classroom, and the reasons why are unclear. It seems persuasive to say that class participation increases the likelihood that a student is paying attention in class and actively engaging the material. This is a qualified statement, of course, as some students are able to do these things while sitting silently behind their laptop screen that does not have a game of Spider Solitaire occupying the center. But for these students the question then becomes why they choose not to voice their opinions and offer their perspectives.
Dean Ellen Cosgrove said that one of the difficulties she had when she attended Chicago Law School was the absence of a female perspective by the predominantly male faculty. She remedied that in part by speaking frequently in class. Female students here have a similar duty. It is true it is up to the professor to ensure that a female perspective is included in discussion, but it is also the role of the student to either assist the professor in that task or make up for his or her deficiency in conveying that perspective.
Hopefully the Study has unleashed a wave of discussion across campus. Or perhaps the Study was met with a shrug of the shoulders. It would be shameful if the latter occurred even once on campus, as this Study is an insightful tool in the troubling experiences of women at Harvard Law School.
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