Students speak out on gender study


The Study on Women´s Experiences is the latest word in a broad discussion on gender at HLS. Tammy Pettinato / The Record

The differing experiences of men and women at Harvard Law School has become a recently discussed issue: a Dean’s Forum on gender issues last week; the recent “Study on Women’s Experiences at Harvard Law School” is online, with summaries of its findings being put into every Hark Box; and this week’s presentation on the report drew a crowd of over 70 people. Students are finding the report to be an accurate reflection of their perceptions, though not all agree on what needs to be done.

One-L Megan Wernke read the report but was not surprised by the findings. “It wasn’t unexpected,” says Wernke, noting that one could have predicted such findings by looking at previous studies about the number of women on Law Review as well as reports on women’s grades. Even her own experiences as a 1L bear out the report’s findings: “We only have two girls in class that talk [often],” says Wernke.

Fellow 1L Ravi Faiia agrees. “I think, on the whole, there are more men that talk,” says Faiia, but overall he and Wernke have not noticed that women feel or are made to feel inhibited in class by peers or professors.

Tanya Sheridan, an LLM, also does not find anything about the way classes are run as inhibiting women. “I think the professors here are excellent. I don’t think they encourage girls, but I also don’t think they discourage them,” said Sheridan. Men in class are treated the same, she notes.

Sheridan does point to a difference between her time here and her experiences in her native home, Ireland: “It’s so professional here,” says Sheridan, with methodical professors who lay out carefully crafted syllabi and reschedule missed classes. In Ireland, professors tend to be already overworked practitioners who juggle multiple responsibilities, and can often miss class due to a court hearing. Sheridan is pleased to find more resources here at HLS, though she has observed that “the diversity of opinions is a lot less,” as there are few interactions with people in other fields. Every argument “always goes back to gay marriage or other legal issues,” whereas back home Sheridan often would engage in conversation with people from other disciplines, resulting in broader discussions.

For some students, the report and recent conversations have prompted a call to action to address the issues raised.

Two-Ls Katie Wiik and Naomi Schoenbaum have joined with others to form a gender justice group to address many of the issues that came up from the report on women’s experiences. “We have amazingly articulate, competent, and passionate women students at our school,” notes Wiik, “but once here they are disproportionately likely to experience low self-confidence about their abilities, are less likely to speak in class, get the highest grades, graduate with Latin honors, be selected to participate in Law Review…given our vast intellectual and financial resources, we can and must do better.”

Schoenbaum agrees, pointing out that the report can also be used as a foundation to improve the experiences of all students. “The study indicates that there are things that we could be doing to improve student experiences for everyone. There are many men at HLS who don’t love it here and would like to see things change as well.”

“I think that now we have concrete data on these issues, we need to do something about the problems that we see and try to improve student experiences for everyone,” says Schoenbaum, who suggests potential areas to explore: “I think we need to explore new pedagogical methods and adapt the law school experience to meet student needs. We need to develop a culture here that allows all students to succeed and that values many different measures of success.”

Getting people involved is crucial to bringing about change, notes Wiik. “We need to publicize these findings, educate and mobilize concerned alumni and students, create some proposals for change, and lobby the administration to enact them. There’s a powerful sense that we’re in the midst of a sea change in our community,” and the new gender justice group will work to “articulate and embody a complicated notion of gender equality that recognizes that how people experience gender at HLS is necessarily shaped by their race, class, sexuality, etc.”

Wiik and Scheonbaum invite interested students to get involved. Schoenbaum points out that the new group actively engage the Harvard Law community. “We will engage in political activism, but also provide a community for discussing issues relevant to gender,” says Schoenbaum. “We hope to lobby for more women students and professors, more professors interested in feminist legal thought and gender issues, and more courses relevant to gender, as well as increased sensitivity to these issues in courses currently being taught.”

Indeed, Adam Neufeld, one of the student leaders behind the study on women’s experiences, finds that the report has hit close to home with many people here. “The study really seems to resonate with students here,” says Neufeld, adding that “there seems to be a lot of dissatisfaction students have, and the study seems to be helping people release some of it. I’ve been shocked at how many thank-yous I’ve gotten, even from people who I thought loved it here,” says Neufeld

Some students express hope that reforms can be implemented to reduce the disparities observed in the report. Noting that most of the pedagogies used by professors here could be reformed, Amy Lawler, 2L, feels that there is room for improvement. “I feel the Socratic method could work, or even volunteering, but they need to not call on the same people all of the time,” says Lawler. “And they need to stop the gunners!”

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