Gender Disparities at HLS

Starting in the spring semester, 1Ls are inundated with offers of lunch panels and coffee chat invitations from the two-year student organizations on campus. Membership to the Harvard Law Review, Harvard Legal Aid Bureau, and the Board of Student Advisors is highly selective and the organizations are frequently viewed as “honor societies” within the HLS community, making them approximate measures of normative law school success. The Shatter the Ceiling Committee of the Women’s Law Association analyzed the number of men and women in each of these organizations to see whether male and female students are gaining membership to these organizations at equal rates.

Of the three student groups examined, both the Harvard Law Review (“HLR”) and the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau (“HLAB”) had statistically significant deviations from the expected gender breakdown, based on the total number of male and female students in the classes of 2016 and 2017. Interestingly, the gender disparities skewed in different directions. For the classes of 2016 and 2017, HLAB had significantly more women than would be expected (c2 = 6.933, P = 0.008), with 68% women and 32% men, while HLR had significantly more men (c2 = 6.721, P = 0.01), with 35.87% women and 64.13% men. There was not a statistically significant difference in membership to the Board of Student Advisors (BSA), which had 58.14% women and 41.86% men.[1]

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The gender disparity among the editors of the law review isn’t unique to Harvard. A study by Lynne Kolodinsky examining the representation of men and women on the top twenty law reviews in the country, including most of the T14, found a persistent gender disparity in law review membership.[2] While some schools did not have such a gap, the study did not find that any particular selection method used for law review membership, including the use of affirmative action practices, had a major causal effect on the overall gender disparity.[3] Rather than assuming more women aren’t chosen for law review because of biased selection methods, Kolodinsky proposed that more women may be affirmatively choosing to not join in the first place.[4]

Preliminary research from HLR suggests self-selection could be a contributing factor to the gender gap seen in Harvard’s law review membership. Michael Zuckerman, the President of the Harvard Law Review, said, “Because our competition is fully anonymous, our data is imperfect, but the data we do have suggests that the disparities are in large part a function of who completes the competition.” HLR’s preliminary data shows that in addition to more men completing the writing competition, more men than women also pick up the competition packet.

Finding that HLAB has statistically significantly more women than men provides possible support for the hypothesis that women self-select out of participating in law review. Simmi Kaur, Vice President for Membership at HLAB, said, “We are proud of the central role women play in the Bureau and believe that the representation of marginalized identities is consistent with our goals as an organization. Women take on significant leadership roles in the Bureau and our female applicants can see that, which may lead them to apply in larger numbers.”

While it’s not clear whether students who elect to apply to HLAB also choose to not take part in the law review writing competition, Zuckerman expressed, “All of us at the Law Review take building an inclusive and diverse membership extremely seriously, and we strongly encourage first-year students from all backgrounds to take our writing competition, which is the one necessary step to becoming an editor. Editors of all genders — and certainly including our majority-female leadership team, our recruitment team, and our Women’s Committee — have spent countless hours this spring working to build on the efforts of previous volumes to encourage full participation in our competition and move the organization toward full gender parity.”

One prong of HLR’s recruitment efforts this year has been to correct misconceptions students may have about the law review. For instance, one such misconception is that you need top grades to gain membership. While 14 of the editors invited to join HLR each year are selected based on an equally weighted combination of first-year grades and competition scores, 20 are selected based solely on competition scores, and the final 12 are selected based on a more holistic review that can include grades if disclosed, but also includes self-disclosed identity information and competition scores.[5]

Zuckerman also explained that HLR is working to establish connections between current law review editors and 1Ls thinking about participating in the writing competition. These relationships can take the form of informational coffee chats, but HLR also hopes that the law review representative will become a future source of motivation and support for students who may feel discouraged from taking part in or who start to second guess themselves during the week long competition.

The gender gap in law review membership is a problem HLR has long been aware of and one it is trying to address. While the number of female editors still lags behind, there are currently 11 openly LGB editors on HLR, many of whom are in leadership positions, and there was an openly trans editor last year. Such evidence indicates the law review has had some success diversifying its membership and becoming more inclusive.

The more serious gender disparity at HLS, which can’t be explained through self-selection, is the difference in the number of men and women graduating with Latin Honors. An analysis of the students graduating in 2015 found a statistically significant difference between the number of men and women graduating with Latin Honors after controlling for gender representation within the entire class (c2 = 12.37, P < 0.001), with women receiving 36.86% of total Latin Honors awarded and men receiving 63.14%.[6]

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The disparity in the number of male and female students graduating with Latin Honors has been a long-standing issue at HLS. A 2013 article in The Crimson by Dev Patel quoted Dean Minow saying, “We don’t need to have a study, we need to work on making this better…You don’t have to prove anything to me; I’m already committed to addressing these issues, as is the faculty.”[7]

However, comparisons between a 2005 study on women’s experiences at HLS, which found from 1997-2003, 44.9% of women graduated with Latin Honors (compared to 53.4% of men),[8] and the data from the HLS classes of 2014 and 2015 (where 30.63% and 30.53% of women and 48.68% and 51.15% of men graduated with Latin Honors, respectively) suggest little progress has been made in addressing the gender disparity in law school performance, as lower percentages of women have received Latin Honors in more recent years.[9]

While Dean Minow says she is “committed to addressing these issues,” the lack of transparency with students has made it unclear whether the administration and faculty have taken steps towards addressing the gender gap in grades. The data collected suggest that if such steps have been initiated, they have had negligible (or even negative) effects on the gender disparity in academic performance.

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Interestingly, the gender grade disparity may not be the same at other law schools. In 2013, visiting professor Laura Rosenbury said at Washington University in St. Louis, women outperformed men for grades.[10] Similarly, Stanford Law School reported closing the gender gap in academic performance after moving to an honors-pass grading system and reducing class sizes.[11] However, such gender parity at HLS remains elusive, despite the grading system reform in 2009.[12]

One ongoing roadblock in solving the gender disparity in grades at HLS is the lack of transparency from the administration and faculty concerning both the gender disparity in grades and any measures to combat it. Despite the professed commitment to addressing the gender gap, since the 2005 study, the school has released no data about gendered differences in performance. The HLS approach that seems to try to sweep the gender differences under the rug stands in stark contrast to the Harvard Business School (“HBS”) approach. HBS also had a longstanding gender disparity in academic performance. However, in 2011, HBS reshaped its curriculum, rules, and social rituals to foster female success.[13] Many of these initiatives were aimed at ensuring equal participation from male and female students in class discussions, which comprised 50% of business school grades.[14] By training students to raise their hands affirmatively, changing the first-year curriculum, and allowing professors to analyze their calling and grading patterns by gender, the gender gap in academic performance had disappeared by 2013.[15] While there are certainly differences between the law school and business school — such as the fact that participation is so heavily counted for business school grades — the most crucial difference for gendered disparity in grades is that HBS has transparently, comprehensively, and successfully taken measures to address its gender gap, while HLS has consistently refused to do so.

Given that exams are graded blindly, determining why the gender disparity in academic performance at HLS persists is a challenging task exacerbated by the lack of information available to students regarding factors professors consider when grading exams and the lack of official data on exam performance. A previous study found evidence that the gender disparity on exams varied with the gender of the professor.[16] Compared to 1L courses taught by female professors, those taught by male professors showed slightly larger gender disparities in exam grades.[17] Seeing as there are more than twice as many full-time male faculty members compared to full-time female faculty members, it is possible that lack of gender diversity among the professors at HLS could be trickling down and affecting the performance of students.

What is clear is that women entering HLS are just as capable and qualified as male students.[18] There is something about the Harvard Law School experience that negatively impacts female students’ academic performance. Comparisons to other schools show that there are ways to address the gender based disparity in grades. Rather than feeling discouraged, female students at HLS should feel confident in their qualifications and capabilities and demand that the administration address this institutional issue in a transparent and collaborative way.

For more information about this piece, contact Alison Burton, co-chair of the Shatter the Ceiling Committee at the Women’s Law Association. Mollie Swears contributed statistical analysis.


[1] A Chi-Square Goodness of Fit test was used to determine whether the proportion of men and women in each student organization or receiving Latin Honors deviated from the expected outcome, based on the overall proportion of men and women in the relevant population of students. The relevant population of students for the analysis of HLR, HLAB, and the BSA included the the classes of 2016-2017. For analysis of students receiving Latin Honors in 2015, the relevant population was the class of 2015. The number of men and women in the classes of 2015-2017 were obtained from the Office of the Registrar for use in this analysis. The list of students receiving Latin Honors in 2015 was obtained from the Registrar’s website.

[2] Lynne N. Kolodinsky, The Law Review Divide: A Study of Gender Diversity on the Top Twenty Law Reviews, 33 Cornell Law Library Prize for Exemplary Student Research Papers (2014),  http://scholarship.law.cornell.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1007&context=cllsrp.

[3] Id.

[4] Id. at 34.

[5] See Membership, http://harvardlawreview.org/about/ (last visited Mar. 31, 2016).

[6] The number of male and female students from the Class of 2015 graduating with Latin Honors was not obtained from the Office of the Registrar. The gender of each student was identified using social media and information from other students. We were unable to identify the gender of two students, so we counted one as male and one as female.

[7] Dev A. Patel, In HLS Classes, Women Fall Behind, The Harvard Crimson (May 8, 2013), http://www.thecrimson.com/article/2013/5/8/law-school-gender-classroom/?page=4.

[8] Adam Neufeld, Costs of an Outdated Pedagogy? Study on Gender at Harvard Law School, Am. U. J. Gender, Soc. Pol’y & L. 511, 537 (2005).

[9] A previous Shatter the Ceiling study implementing the same methods found that only 30.63% of women in the Class of 2014 graduated without Latin Honors. See Shatter the Ceiling, 2014-2015 Shatter the Ceiling Numbers Report: Gender Breakdown of Normative Measures of Success at HLS, Facebook (Apr. 2, 2015), https://www.facebook.com/WLAShatter/photos/a.351809194925040.1073741825.312700842169209/695944047178218/?type=3&theater.

[10] Patel, supra note 7.

[11] Clifton B. Parker, Stanford research suggests ways to close the gender gap in law schools, Stanford Report (Nov. 11, 2014), http://news.stanford.edu/news/2014/november/gender-law-pedagogy-111014.html.

[12] Harvard Law School Adopts Pass-Fail Grading System, The Harvard Crimson (Sept. 26, 2008), http://www.thecrimson.com/article/2008/9/26/harvard-law-school-adopts-pass-fail-grading/.

[13] Jodi Kantor, Harvard Business School Case Study: Gender Equity, N.Y. Times 3 (Sept. 7, 2013), http://www.nytimes.com/2013/09/08/education/harvard-case-study-gender-equity.html?hp&_r=0.

[14] Id.                                                                                                

[15] Id.

[16] Neufeld, supra note 8 at 538.

[17] Id.

[18] Patel, supra note 7 (reporting there is no difference in the GPA and LSAT scores of incoming male and female students at HLS).

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