Speaking Their Minds: Students Discuss Gender and the 1L Experience

BY ANGELA YINGLING

“Gender is a fundamental organizing principle of society and it ought to be discussed in law school.” That is what Mona Lewandowski (1L) said at the end of Monday night’s “Gender Forum: The 1L Experience,” and it appears that a lot of people at HLS agree with her.

Gender Forum, an event cosponsored by no less than five different organizations (Journal on Law & Gender, the Working Group on Gender Justice, the Women’s Law Association, STOPDV and the Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review) was the first event in a series which will take place this spring under the title “Sex Ed: Gender and Sexuality in the Classroom.” This semester’s goals of the Sex Ed series are to highlight the interest in gender issues shared by many members of the HLS community and to give students and faculty the opportunity to discuss and address their concerns. On a larger scale, Sex Ed supports the foundation of a proposed Center on Sexuality and Gender at HLS, which would be dedicated to more deeply addressing these issues.

When students first arrived at the Gender Forum on February 13th, they were given a chance to mingle with the other forty or so (overwhelmingly female) students who came to talk. Then several leaders of the event, including Zoe Segal-Reichlin and Rachel Reboche (3L), spoke to the group about the origin and purpose of the night’s event and the greater goals for the Sex Ed series.

The idea for the event was sparked when the results from a study on gender and students’ experiences at HLS was released in 2004. This study, which was performed by a group of students, reported that in traditional markers of success like grades, class participation and Law Review membership, men have marginally, but statistically, outperformed women. However, the study also indicated that in other areas, like leadership in student organizations, mastheads in other journals, legal aid, and public interest fellowships, women have had more success than men. (For more information on the results of the study, go to http://www.law.harvard.edu/students/ experiences/).

The students then broke into small groups containing mixes of 1Ls, 2Ls, and 3Ls and were given an opportunity to talk about their first year experience. Discussions ranged from grades to professors to HLS social lives to post-graduation plans. Although the discussions brought out a range of opinions and experiences, most students seemed to feel that gender had in some way impacted their first year of law school. Some women reported feeling more hesitant about speaking in class than their male classmates appeared to be. Many of the women were concerned about the statistics revealed by the study, and, in at least one small group, that led to an interesting discussion about how men and women may define success differently.

The students seemed pleased by the discussions. “People were much more honest in the dialogue [tonight] then they are in the classroom”, noted 1L Lena Thompson. Some students stayed past 8:30, when the event officially ended, to continue their conversations. In an environment where academic stress and competition can often be overwhelming, it was helpful for many students to be able to let their guard down and speak freely about gender issues without the fear of being judged. “It was great to see people have a chance to get some support from others,” said Sandy Vasher, one of the event’s leaders.

Two things seemed clear from the Gender Forum – gender still plays a big role in many people’s law school experience, and students have plenty to say about it. “It’s sad that gender issues prevent people from everything they can out of law school,” said Lewandoski. The students organizing the event would agree, and they are certainly working to change that.

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