THE LETTER TO THE editor this week by the Working Group on Student Experiences that researched and wrote the “Study on Women’s Experiences at Harvard Law School” is right that the Study’s insight about class participation is important to understanding why so few students dominate so much class time, and why so many students do not voluntarily participate in class at all. These insights obviously cut across gender boundaries.
But the letter is distressing in that it seeks to downplay, at least to some extent, the focus of the Study on the experiences of women at the Law School, especially since the letter comes but two weeks after the Study’s release. The authors reiterate again and again, in the letter and in several forums where the Study has been discussed, that the Study goes beyond women’s experiences to capture problems at the Law School of men as well.
Of course it is troublesome that so few dominate the time of so many in Law School classrooms. But it is also troubling that the Study is being presented to the Law School in what appears to be more of a gender neutral conclusory manner than is necessary or warranted. The Study itself should dispel the need for such presentation: Women, on average, continue to perform worse in terms of grades than men at Harvard Law School (not to mention other law schools, a finding which has been documented through other studies); women, on average, continue to talk less than men in Law School classrooms; women, on average, have less confidence about their ability to perform during their first year at Law School than their male counterparts. These are gender-specific problems that demand a gender-specific focus and, if need be, a gender-specific solution.
Just as troubling as this perceived need to downplay the gender-focus of the Study is how early the campaign has been initiated. A few days before the Report was released this campaign began at the Dean’s Forum on gender issues and the classroom. At least one of the authors reminded those gathered that the Study has important conclusions for both men and women at the Law School. This is certainly true, especially in respect to classroom participation, but the problem is still primarily a female one. Women are sitting silently in class while the male voice dominates the discussion. It is interesting to wonder why some men are more inclined to talk than others, but this Study, by its title alone, was not convened to find an answer to this question. The import of the Study is that it is attempting to find out why most females are not talking at all in class and are, on average, performing worse than men in terms of grades.
It is understandable that the authors hope their Study will not be gender limited, thus missing areas that could have significance for all students at the Law School. Asking why a few male students dominate the class would be an important follow-up question that this Study implicitly asks. But as a school we should focus first on the reason the Study was commissioned and why students should read and study its contents: to find ways to eliminate the gender disparity problem at this school that has impacted women and has limited women’s opportunities both at the Law School and beyond.