Harvard Law School’s Glass Ceilings

I. Introduction

This May marks the 65th anniversary of the first class of women to graduate from Harvard Law School. In 1953, 12 women walked with their class; next month, 280 women will cross the stage and enter the ranks of HLS alumni. In the intervening years, this law school has seen changes of which we should be proud. We now have more than one bathroom for women to use, for starters. Women are no longer just a fraction of the student body: this year’s graduating class is 47.5 percent female, and next year we will have the first majority-female graduation ceremony. Women are on the faculty and in the administration, and feature prominently in accounts of the school’s most illustrious alumni. The Women’s Law Association (WLA) is the largest organization on campus, and female students hold 52 percent of the leadership roles in student organizations.

But year after year, WLA’s research demonstrates that HLS still fails to ensure that women achieve success at rates equal to their male classmates. While we have nearly as many female students as male, women are nowhere near parity on the faculty. Female students are not achieving academic success at the same rate as our male counterparts, something that threatens our ability to enter the highest echelons of the legal profession at the same rate as men. The administration has a lot of work left to do in order to ensure that its female students have the support, mentorship, and opportunities needed to succeed. This is especially true for people with intersectional identities, including women of color, indigenous women, queer and trans women, disabled women, women who are international students, gender non-conforming and non-binary folks, and others who face unique challenges above and beyond those identified here. Our focus in this article is on women as a collective, but we know that this approach risks erasing the unique challenges and barriers to success faced by people with intersecting marginalized identities.

Next September marks Celebration 65, honoring that first class of HLS women. This article presents WLA’s ongoing research, which we hope will launch a year-long conversation about gender equity–or the lack thereof–on campus. Our focus here is on gender representation in the faculty and academic performance among students, which are just two metrics of gender equity, but ones that we believe are important starting points for this discussion. As the conversation moves forward, we must disaggregate the data and analysis in order to reflect the true spectrum of our community. We must also make this a conversation that brings together the HLS community as a whole. For too long, this conversation has been sidelined. As we move towards Celebration 65, it is time that it takes center stage.

II. The Data

A. Our Methods

How did we get this data? Is it publicly available? Was it provided by the school? Was it distributed in an effort to foster a larger conversation about the lack of gender parity on this campus?

The answer, unfortunately, is that we counted. Current students utilized the previous year’s commencement booklet and the powers of Google to count the number of women who graduated with Latin honors; they used the law school’s website to tally the number of female faculty members. We drew on student research about grade disparities and gender at HLS. We know this is not the best way to gather the data. It would be better to get it directly from the offices in charge of determining and monitoring academic achievement. That they either do not have it or do not make it accessible is the first indicator of the depth of the problem: without facts, we cannot solve problems. Without data, we cannot adequately advocate for substantial change. The lack of transparency on the part of the administration creates unnecessary barriers to having an informed conversation about how to work towards gender parity on campus. It is time for this law school to end its dependence on the voluntary labor of women, largely 1Ls, who monitor their classrooms, spend time counting faculty and journal leadership online, or communicate for weeks with the administration about getting access to data only to be given the runaround. The administration must take responsibility for collecting and publishing the data necessary for our community to engage in a fact-based conversation regarding gender on campus. Investing in outside consultants and undertaking a comprehensive study is a small investment that could lead to significant improvements in the experiences of women on campus.

B. Lack of Female Faculty Members

Though the student body is now half women, just over 23 percent of tenured, non-clinical faculty members at Harvard Law School are women.  This year, only 30.1 percent of Climenko Fellows, sometimes the faculty members first-year students interact with the most, are women. Merely 40 percent of tenured, clinical faculty members are women. While 66.67 percent of our six assistant professors are women and 61.5 percent of lecturers are women, the Harvard Law School faculty remains overwhelmingly male.

Is this progress since 1953? Certainly. Is this acceptable? Absolutely not. Women faculty bring important perspectives on the law and the world to legal academia; just as importantly, female students need people who share their experiences to serve as their teachers, mentors, and role models. With well over 800 female students on campus and less than 30 tenured female faculty members, it can be challenging just to take a class taught by a woman, much less to develop the personal and professional mentoring relationships that are so critical to the legal profession. And while it is certainly not the case that female students only seek out female faculty members to serve as their mentors and role models, it is undeniable there are lived experiences that many women share. Having professors who share these experiences is critical, and hiring female faculty members must remain a top priority for the administration and hiring committee at Harvard Law School.

C. Disparities in Academic Achievement

In the Class of 2017, 28.33 percent of students who graduated Magna Cum Laude were women – just 17 individuals, as compared to 43 men who graduated with the same distinction. Overall, only 42 percent of all students graduating with Latin honors were female (101 women, compared to 141 men). In total, 36 percent of women (101 out of 299 women in the class) graduated with Latin honors, compared to 45.6 percent of men (141 out of 311 men in the class) who did the same. This data is unsurprising to those who have been tracking it; for years, men have outperformed women academically at HLS.

Latin honors are one measure of success in law school; they are certainly not the only metric, and it would be wrong to suggest otherwise. Latin honors and grades more generally, however, do serve as a gatekeeping mechanism to many of the most sought-after opportunities in the legal world. They affect students’ abilities to obtain clerkships, offers from top law firms, and prestigious public interest fellowships. They also determine who is able to enter into legal academia – gendered disparities in grades in law school thus lead to gendered disparities in law school faculties.

We do not know why women are less likely to succeed academically. Investigating why women still do not succeed at the same rates men do and eliminating this gap should be a top priority for the administration. For the administration to boast of gender parity in enrollment, while turning a blind eye to the success of women once they are a part of the law school community, is simply unacceptable.

III. Conclusion

The women who attend Harvard Law School are talented, hard-working, and ready to change the world. But for too long, they have been asked to do the work of measuring and rectifying gender inequity single-handedly, without adequate support from the institution itself. Female students are conducting studies to assess gender disparities in professors’ cold calls. They are leading surveys to understand the ways in which gender and grades are correlated over the course of three years. They are running whisper campaigns to know which job and clerkship opportunities they should turn down in order to avoid being sexually harassed or discriminated against. It is time for the school to complete an independent, thorough analysis of the status of women on campus, and to develop a blueprint for remedying the inequities. The women of Harvard Law School stand ready and willing to be a partner in this process.

This article was written with research support from the 2017-18 Women’s Law Association Research Committee (Mollie Swears, Amanda Lee, Rachel Simon) and the Shatter the Ceiling Committee (Alyssa Bernstein).

Molly Coleman is a 1L. She is the co-chair of the 2018-19 Women's Law Association Shatter the Ceiling Committee.

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