Do You Accept the Status Quo? It’s About Time to Shatter the Ceiling

The Shatter the Ceiling coalition is an initiative calling attention to systemic gender disparities at Harvard Law School.

Shatter the Ceiling started with a rumor: “Did you hear that not one woman got Magna Cum Laude last year?” my friend asked me over winter break. With a few minutes of research, this rumor proved untrue, but its origin was easily explainable. In 2011, approximately 30 percent of magna cum laude recipients were women. In 2012, the number remained unchanged.

A little more research led me to Adam Neufeld’s 2004 Study, “Study on Women’s Experiences at Harvard Law School,” on the HLS website. Adam Neufeld had access to 1L grades, other statistics and freedom to observe classrooms. He found male students were 50 percent more likely than women to speak voluntarily at least once in class; 40 percent of men ranked themselves in the top quintile in quantitative skills versus 11 percent of women, and; from 1999-2003, 14.4 percent of men were awarded magna cum laude versus 8.4 percent of women.

Reading Neufeld’s study, I became outraged that both subjective and quantitative gender disparities at HLS were an identified concern that no one spoke of or took public action to correct. I had often felt unwelcome as a woman at Harvard Law School, especially during my first semester, when all of my professors were male (Note: the administration has committed to having at least one female professor per section per 1L year, but has not committed to ensuring it occurs in the first semester). While I was relieved to see that I was not alone in my experience, eight years had passed since the study was conducted, yet nothing seemed to have changed.

Since this realization, a group of men and women, most recently under the auspices of the Women’s Law Association, have been researching, brainstorming and organizing to make a change.

We have uncovered more statistics that highlight the gender disparities across the board at HLS. Women comprise(d)

  • 9 out of 44 of this year’s incoming Harvard Law Review members (which has prompted a change in HLR application policies);
  • 29 percent of the Supreme Court clerkships from Harvard alum over the past six years;
  • 18 out of 60 of the magna cum laude honors recipients in 2012;
  • 7 out of 24 semi-rounds finalist in Ames 2013, and;
  • 18 women out of 92 current professors and assistant professors.

We feel these interrelated disparities in achievement reflect a patent injustice, as well as signal that the educational environment and system at HLS negatively affects the quality of life and education for all members of the law school community, especially minority groups. We cannot forget the historical dimension at issue—HLS excluded women until 1953, and women did not attend in significant numbers until the 1990s. The doors have opened, but we still have a long way to go to achieve parity.

Although the reasons for these disparities are surely complicated, and the solutions trickier still, the first step in eliminating this inequity is acknowledging it, and rejecting it as the status quo. We know that women and men enter HLS equally capable. We are asking the community to raise awareness of the disparities that exist, support the coalition as we investigate the root causes of these disparities, and commit to long-term goals for change. We all have a role to play in bettering our school for all of its members.

We invite you to join us as we Shatter the Ceiling. Please come out for our Kick-off Event, this Wednesday, March 13, 7 pm, in Milstein West B, and sign your name onto our solidarity letter:



As members of the Harvard Law School community, we are deeply concerned about the gender disparities at Harvard Law School. These disparities particularly concern us because they affect honors that often serve as passports to positions of leadership and power. For example, the disparities are salient in the makeup of Harvard Law Review, Latin Honors, Ames Moot Court Competition, and post-graduate clerkships.

We know that our male and female peers are equally capable. We believe that men, women and all members of HLS should have equal opportunity to reap the benefits of this institution. It is clear that these disparities signal the existence of deeper, systemic problems in the structure of legal education at HLS, which adversely affect all students and their development as lawyers of the 21st century;

Out of concern for our fellow HLS members, and ourselves, we pledge our support to the Shatter the Ceiling coalition, as we work together to:

1. ELEVATE the status of women at Harvard Law School by achieving actual gender parity, measured not only by closing statistical disparities, but also by building a healthier, more effective educational environment.


  • Gather data on the problem;
  • Speak with administrators, students, and professors to learn more not only about women’s quantifiable experiences at HLS, but also about their subjective experiences;
  • Address the ways in which these gendered barriers intersect with and reinforce obstacles affecting members of all minority communities, and
  • Rigorously study the pedagogy of the law school.


  • Partner with professors, student groups, administrators and the greater Harvard community to enact change.


  • Develop creative and targeted short-term and long-term responses to the gender disparities at HLS.
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