Study: women get lower grades than men, take more public interest jobs



Adam Neufeld began to realize something was amiss after a year at Harvard Law School. Women didn’t seem to speak up as often in class. Men seemed more interested in law firm receptions. But were these differences real, or only in Adam’s mind?

Then Adam saw a recent study that compared the experiences of men and women at Yale Law School. If there were vast differences at Yale, might there be at Harvard as well?

So began a year-and-a-half-long process that has culminated with the release of the “Study on Women’s Experiences at Harvard Law School,” researched and written by Neufeld and other members of the Working Group on Student Experiences. Preparing the report involved surveying students, observing student participation in 190 class meetings, analyzing first-year course grades, looking at extracurricular involvement, organizing student focus groups, and compiling statistics on mental health visits, post-graduate employment and clerkships. The findings affirm those of the Yale study and Neufeld’s observations: women and men are experiencing HLS in dramatically different ways.

The report notes that women seem less inclined to voluntarily participate in class discussions. “Women consistently volunteered to speak less often,” notes the report – and the disparity increases when it comes to “gunners.” Women make up “a significantly smaller percentage of frequent talkers, those students who speak three or more times in one class.” (These “gunners,” incidentally, made up 18% of 1L students but contributed a disproportionate 50% of all comments in the 1L classes that were monitored.) Overall, a male student was “50% more likely to speak voluntarily at least once during a class meeting than was a female student,” according to the report.

The disparity in class participation holds across the curriculum, though Neufeld points out that when it comes to grades, “subject matter matters.” According to the report, women tended to do worst in Torts, where a large grade disparity was found, and best in Criminal Law, where no disparity existed. Overall, 31% of first-year grades for men consisted of an A- or better, while only 25% of women fared as well. Exam type, however, did not affect the grades of men or women.

Looking at graduation honors, women again lag behind men, with 55.1% of women graduating without Latin honors and 46.6% of men doing likewise. The honor of magna cum laude went to 14.4% of male graduates, while only 8.4% of women received the honor at graduation.

The study found that women do tend to be more involved in journals and hold a greater quantity of leadership positions within them than do men. “Women comprised 49% of executive boards and 56% of the top leadership positions of HLS-recognized academic journals,” states the report, noting that most journals have had women make up at least 50% of their membership at some point in the past six years. Women, who make up about 45% of the student body, have also enrolled in great numbers in the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau and the Board of Student Advisors, of whose membership they comprised 57% and 59% respectively over the past six years.

No difference was found however in terms of whether students would choose to attend HLS again if they had the choice. Second and third year males however, were more likely than women to respond that they would not attend law school at all, pointing perhaps to a greater sense of dissatisfaction among male students with regard to the general law school experience.

As far as career choices, women were less likely than men to choose firm work and more likely to do public interest or government service. “From 1998 to 2003, nearly 11% of female graduates took a public interest job as their initial employment (excluding clerkships), compared with 5.5% of male graduates,” found the report, based on data submitted to it by the Office of Public Interest Advising and the Office of Career Services. Women, who have never comprised even half of the student body at HLS, nonetheless make up 55% of Low-Income Protection Plan participants, reflecting this greater trend toward non-firm employment by women.

Similarly, career decisions are made based on different priorities by men and women. Based on survey data, women are more likely to select “helping others” (41% v. 26%) and “advancing ideological goals” (24% v. 15%), are less likely to select “high salary” (32% v. 44%) as reasons for choosing a career. Men, in turn, lose interest in “helping others” as a principle that guides career choice, with 2L and 3L men being significantly less likely to select “helping others” as a priority.

Bearing out a common perception, the report found that 2Ls and 3Ls do in fact study less than 1Ls, with no differences generally among men and women. A difference exists, however, among 2Ls and 3Ls who are married, with married men spending more time studying for class than the average; married women, meanwhile, do not have different study habits from their peers.

Many of these findings are similar to studies at other top law schools, such as Yale and the University of Pennsylvania. “This is not unique to Harvard,” says Neufeld.

The report does not address solutions – the student group wanted to encourage debate, not offer a pre-determined perspective. “Initially, we were just trying to investigate…we didn’t come in with a hypothesis that we were trying to prove or disprove,” says Charlotte Sanders, 2L, one of the leaders of the student group behind the report. “The project is how to make the Law School more inclusive and lend itself to different ways of learning,” says Sanders. Also, it is more than a report solely about women, points out Sanders, “focus on the flip-side: what does it tell us about men?”

Indeed, Sanders and Neufeld both point out that the report can be helpful in understanding general issues about student life and student experiences in addition to specific gender issues.

Another reason the student group avoided making recommendations in the report is that the root causes of many of the disparities are uncertain. “Is the Law School the cause, or are there outside causes?” questions Sanders.

Nonetheless, Sanders and others hope the report will lead to discussion and change at HLS. “The next step is to include the opinions of others in the HLS community,” says Sanders, noting that now that this information is available, the question of gender differences needs to be “actively pursued and discussed.” To this end, the group will lead a presentation and discussion of the report on Tuesday, February 24th, at 4:30pm in Langdell South. A copy of the report can also be found online at so students can view it themselves.

“The legal education question is particularly important,” says Neufeld, pointing out that because of the rigid Law School system students may often be mismatched with employers, which in turn leads to dissatisfaction among graduates. The school should be doing more to prevent this. “One area the school can help students in is to help them think about what they want [career wise],” says Neufeld, who admits “there’s no quick answer to rectify these things.”

Yet hope remains. “There are many ways that schools can change,” says Sanders, pointing out that other top law schools have taken steps to respond to their own gender studies.

But such change will have to come from the entire school for it to be effective.

“As individual students and as a community, we have to talk about why we do the things we do, and understand for ourselves what we are committed to, and why those projects are the best for us,” wrote a 1L woman in one of the surveys used to compile the report. “It is as much a personal challenge as it is a challenge for the administration and institution of the law school.”

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