Gender Disparities at HLS: Still Room for Improvement

In the spring semester, 1L students are invited to apply for the three two-year student organizations on campus. Membership to the Harvard Law Review, Harvard Legal Aid Bureau, and the Board of Student Advisers is highly selective and the organizations are frequently viewed as “honor societies” within the HLS community, making them one approximate measure of normative law school success. The Shatter the Ceiling Committee of the Women’s Law Association conducted its annual analysis of gender representation in each of these organizations to see if male and female students are gaining membership to these organizations at equal rates.

Of the three groups examined, only 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 2017 and 2018. Like last year,[1] HLAB continues to have statistically significantly more female members compared to the overall demographics of the classes of 2017 and 2018 (c2 = 6.352, P = 0.012). There was no statistically significant difference in the gender makeup of the Board of Student Advisers (c2 = 0.483, P = 0.487) or Harvard Law Review (HLR) (c2 = 2.343, P = 0.126).

Executive Director of HLAB Margaret Kettles expressed that HLAB is proud of the strength of its female members. She said, “HLAB is committed to not only providing high-quality legal services but also to addressing racial, social, and economic inequalities that the law further entrenches. One way we attempt to address sexism, racism, and classism in the law is by proactively choosing a “diverse” group of student attorneys to join the Bureau. We’re proud to be open to all genders, that our membership is majority women, and that our board is over 90% women.”

When asked about her thoughts on the gender gap and whether HLAB had initiated efforts to recruit more male members, Kettles explained, “Many women throughout the law school use their time to resist injustice and inequality and to work directly with people who are experiencing oppression through the law. I see the gender breakdown of HLAB as a challenge to the men of the law school to increase their commitment to engaging with the community in which they live, fighting for social justice, and engaging in direct legal services.”

Though Shatter’s 2016 analysis found that there were statistically significantly more men on HLR than women,[2] this year’s analysis revealed no statistically significant gender differences. When speaking of closing the gender gap on HLR, Imelme Umana, President of the Harvard Law Review, said that “[t]he Law Review is proud of the achievement represented by Volume 131 — we have not only the most diverse class in the journal’s history but also a majority-female leadership team.” Despite this important sign of progress, the concrete HLR membership numbers — 55 men and 37 women this year, as opposed to 59 men and 33 women last year — demonstrate that men continue to outnumber women.

Given the success of recruitment efforts last year that focused on creating connections between current HLR editors and 1Ls thinking about participating in the writing competition,[3] HLR “continue[s] to build on the hard work of the previous Volume by encouraging first-year law students of various backgrounds to consider taking our writing competition to join the Law Review.” Umana explained that HLR’s editors have “had hundreds of 1:1 conversations with 1Ls about the ways in which the Law Review can further many different kinds of aspirations, careers, goals, and perspectives, and the ways in which it’s critical that legal scholarship reflect our community and the world in which we live.” Similarly, “[a]s an institution that engages with legal scholarship, advances legal theories, and shapes discourse, [the Law Review] believe[s] it to be critically important that many voices and perspectives guide those efforts. Incorporating differing perspectives into our editorial work enriches both our scholarship and community.”

Class of 2016 – Latin Honors

While the shift toward gender parity in HLR membership is encouraging, disparities in Latin Honors achievement remain a continuing problem at the law school. An analysis of students graduating in 2016 found that statistically significantly more men graduate with Latin Honors, after controlling for gender representation within the entire class (c2 = 4.301, P = 0.038).

The data labels indicate the number of students receiving each Latin Honor with the percentage out of total students who received the specific Latin Honor in parentheses.

Although the size of the gender gap decreased slightly from 2015 to 2016, with a higher percentage of women in the class of 2016 graduating with Latin Honors compared to women in the class of 2015, this is not a statically significant difference (c2 = 1.052, P = 0.3051) and Shatter’s data still indicates that the gender gap in academic achievement at HLS is larger than it was ten to twenty years ago. Furthermore, whether this small narrowing of the gender gap in achievement of Latin Honors is actually a trend or a random fluctuation remains to be seen.

Classroom Participation Data Analysis 

In the fall of 2016, twenty-seven volunteers from the seven 1L sections tracked the classroom participation of female and male[4] students for a week. The analysis focused on five elements of classroom participation: number of cold-calls, volunteers, follow-up questions,[5] references,[6] and interruptions by professors. The proportion of cold-calls asked of female or male students was compared to what would have been expected based on the ratio of female to male students in the class.[7]

This analysis found four professors who had statistically significant differences (P < 0.05) and two professors with near statistically significant differences (P < 0.07) in a classroom participation element. These professors all taught different subjects, so subject matter did not seem to affect classroom participation. Notably, however, five of the six professors flagged were for differences in the number of female and male students who were called on as volunteers, while the other was for the number of references.

Of the five professors flagged for significant or nearly significant gendered differences in volunteering, three of the professors were male while two were female. A particularly interesting finding was that all of the male professors allowed male students to dominate the classroom conversations. Of the two female professors with significant differences in volunteering patterns, one called on more female volunteers while the other called on more males. The significant difference in references occurred in a female professor’s classroom, where the professor and/or students referred more frequently to comments made by male students than to comments made by female students.


These findings were not unexpected. There has been a host of research noting that male students are called on more frequently than female students and male students speak more frequently and for longer amounts of time than their female counterparts in the college classroom.[8] However, Shatter hopes that bringing these findings to the attention of the law school community might encourage professors to be more mindful of fostering classroom discussions that involve equal amounts of male and female student input and a diversity of perspectives.

There were some limitations to this study, including the small and somewhat variable sample size and a lack of consistency within the data. For instance, some sections had as many as eight volunteers tracking classroom participation, while others had as few as two or three. There was also some variation between trackers within the same section, likely due to the cognitive demands of tracking classroom participation while also being a student. Lastly, the fact that participation was only tracked for a week limited the amount of data collected.

In conclusion, while some gender disparities at HLS may be disappearing, there is still much work to be done, particularly with regard to continuing disparities in Latin Honors and the 1L classroom experience. Going forward, the Women’s Law Association Shatter the Ceiling Committee hopes to work with professors and the new dean to not only increase awareness of these problems at HLS, but also to start developing and implementing solutions.

[1] In 2016, HLAB also had statistically significantly more female than male members (c2 = 6.933, P = 0.008). See Womens Law Association Shatter the Ceiling Committee, Gender Disparities at HLS, Harv. L. Rec. (April 3, 2016),

[2] Id.

[3] Id.

[4] For the classroom participation analysis and discussion, “males” include both male and non-binary students who do not identify as female.

[5] “Follow-up questions” referred to whether a professor asked a student a follow-up question following a cold-call.

[6] “References” referred to the number of times that other students or the professor referred back to what a student said.

[7] A Chi-square goodness of fit test was used to conduct this analysis. The female to male student ratios were obtained for each class, since the presence of LLM students could affect the breakdown from class to class within a section. For each class, the average number of cold-calls, volunteers, follow-up questions, references, and interruptions for each gender was calculated. The sum of the averaged values and the ratio of genders in each class were used to calculate the expected value of female and male students for each element of classroom participation. Then, the probability of seeing the observed value given the expected value was calculated using the chi-squared test. If the probability of seeing the observed value was less than 5%, the class was flagged as having a statistically significant difference between female and male students for that specific classroom participation factor.

[8] Graduate Sch. of Arts & Sci. Teaching Ctr., Colum. U., Gender Issues in the College Classroom, (last visited May 5, 2017).

Eileen Kim, Marina Shkuratov, and Mollie Swears wrote this article on the behalf of the Shatter the Ceiling Committee of the WLA.