WLA Panelists: Education is Key to Equality

BY VICTORIA BARANETSKY

Russlynn Ali, the Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Education, gave the keynote speech.

Last Friday, Feb. 11, the Women’s Law Association hosted its fifth annual conference, “This is What Equality Looks Like: The World We Want for Women and Girls.” The way to reach that world, all participants seemed to repeatedly underscore, is education.

In her introductory remarks WLA President Cari Simon ‘11 revealed she had found a conference flier in the tunnels of HLS vandalized with the message, “Stay In Your Place.” As she wrote in her recent Op-Ed piece and highlighted at the conference, “This is ‘our place.’ Here, at Harvard Law School, the greatest institution of legal education in the nation, this is our place.”

Simon’s remarks reminded women that in the halls of Harvard Law and other educational institutions, women can be empowered — if they own their place in the classroom.

Following Simon’s remarks, the Conference consisted of four panels: “Health & Equality,” “Equality & Economics,” “Equality on Both Sides of the Bench,” and “Equality for Girls.” Regardless of the stated topic, panelists zeroed in on education.

“Education is key,” said Nancy Barry, President, Enterprise Solutions to Poverty, on the Economics panel. “If women have access to financial regulations and markets, they will be able to send their daughters to school [and] lift themselves from poverty” with each generation.

“Education must be used to teach women to find their voices and use it loudly and often,” continued Vickie Reznik, Partner, Kirkland & Ellis. “Women often do not speak up in class, and even at a firm where women come from top law schools, they don’t speak up. Schools must teach women to speak up and speak effectively.”

Lisa Blatt, Partner, Arnold & Porter, has been outspoken about the fact that “confidence not competence” is key, especially in front of the Court where women compose a minority of litigators. Education, she agreed is key, but women need to “own it,” she said.

The theme was continued by audience members. Stephen Cha Kim ‘11 told panelists, “In many classrooms, fifteen men will speak in a row, answering questions skewed to certain perspectives and experiences. We know these kinds of gender dynamics start as early as grade school, but shouldn’t we ask why they still exist in law school and how they help replicate inequalities in the law?”

Despite the perceived dearth of female voices in the classroom, all is not gloomy for women in education, conference speakers reminded the audience.

For example, Dean Minow, in her welcome speech, addressed the positive changes that have taken place in legal education for women. “In 1967, women made up only 5% of law school enrollments nationwide,” she began. “This would grow to 8% in 1968, 30% by 1974, and by 2011 it hovering around, and in some places exceeds, 50%.”

Following Minow’s remarks Russlyn Ali, Assnt. Sec. for U.S. Dep. of Ed., reiterated the mantra in her keynote: “Education is the civil rights issue of our generation.”

Like Dean Minow, Ali noted the successes of women in this realm, especially with regards to Title IX. “Title IX has 36 words, yet it has been largely responsible for the success of the civil rights movement,” said Ali. In addition to counter-intuitively raising the number of male athletes, “Title IX increased the number of women participating [in sports], which seems like an all-around benefit to our nation’s youth.”

However, educational discrimination persists in new forms, explained Ali. Discrimination, she said, looks very different than it did 40 years ago.

In addition, “We have a crisis in this country that we are working hard to resolve,” said Ali, referring to increased levels of sexual violence on college campuses. “If students do not feel safe on campus, they cannot learn.”

In her closing words Ali refocused, “I can think of no other goal…that is more noble…than the real preservation of opportunity and the fundamentals of equality.” But, “while we have come an incredibly far way…we have a very long way to go.”

As if an answer to Ali, Judge Rosemary Pooler of the Second Circuit explained on the Bench panel, “True equality will come when the average of women are like the average of men, and we haven’t gotten there yet.”

But “It starts here, in the halls of Harvard Law School, in Cambridge, in the world you will enter,” said Connie Lindsey from Girl Scouts of America, in the closing panel. “You’re here. You have it. There is critical mass in this room… and I don’t want to be here in 10 years, asking the same questions. … I’m here because I’m depending on you to do the work. One is powerful, but 1,000 is a movement.”  

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