Annual Analysis of Glass Ceilings at HLS

  1. Introduction

There is a long history of discrimination against women in the legal profession. In the 19th century, courts denied law licenses to women on baseless reasons such as women’s delicate health, the inability of females to engage in analytical thought, and the risk of a jury being unduly swayed by feminine appeal. While the first women finally gained admission to the bar in the late 1800s, female law school graduates still found it virtually impossible to obtain jobs as late as the 1970s. Even the indomitable Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was famously rejected from every single law firm that she applied to despite being first in her class at Columbia Law.

Even today, women constitute only 35% of the the legal profession and face significant disadvantages within the industry. According to the American Bar Association, women represent only 25% of managing partners at the 200 largest law firms, and female lawyers make only 77.6% of their male counterparts’ salaries on average. Women are also underrepresented in academia (comprising only 32.4% of law school deans) and in the judiciary (comprising only 27.1% of federal and state judges).

Fortunately, the legal profession has, on the whole, begun to recognize the existence of its glass ceiling and the need to shatter this ceiling. Harvard Law School has nearly reached parity in its admissions, with the class of 2021 comprising of 49% women. HLS’s by-application student organizations – including Harvard Law Review and the Board of Student Advisors, for example – have also actively recruited women in an effort to achieve gender parity once students arrive on campus.

Are these strategies working? Maybe. While organizations run by students are achieving parity at HLS, grading – which is exclusively controlled by the school – is a very different story. Based on the results of the Women’s Law Association’s annual statistical analysis of gender disparities at HLS, there is reason to continue to question the grade gap even as we celebrate other results of this year’s findings:

  • There is a statistically significant deviation in the expected gender breakdown of Latin honors. In the class of 2018, 58% of students who graduated with Latin honors at graduation were men, as compared to 40% women (excluding the 2% of students whose gender could not be reliably confirmed).
  • There are more women than men on the Harvard Law Review.
  • The Harvard Legal Aid Bureau continues its trend of comprising of more women than men.
  • There is an even gender divide amongst the Board of Student Advisors.

We believe the findings related to membership could be the result of intentional efforts of these student organizations to recruit women, and if so, we commend them for their success.  But why are HLS men still obtaining Latin honors more frequently than HLS women at a statistically significant level? More importantly, why hasn’t the school taken any noticeable steps to address inequality or even investigate the root causes of this disparity?

The grade gap is difficult to explain given HLS’s blind grading policy. Are men cold-called more frequently? Are they more likely to feel comfortable asking questions in class or signing up for office hours? Do they receive more academic support from professors? Does the lack of female faculty members affect women’s academic experience? Without additional research, we can only guess the reasons behind this grade gap.

Because the Latin honors gap is an ongoing trend in WLA’s annual study, we believe that the HLS administration must undertake a serious investigation of its causes. The WLA asked the administration to launch an independent, thorough analysis of the gender gap last year, and the administration failed to even respond to the request. While we are excited to report the progress resulting from the efforts of HLS student organizations to obtain gender parity, we must continue to hold the administration accountable for its lack of investment in solving — or even understanding — the gender grade gap.  Grades are not the only measure of success in law school, but we believe that they are still significant to analyze to the extent that systematic gender-based disparities in grades are likely to lead to similar gender-based disparities after graduation.

  1. Methodology
  • The Data

Our study sought to calculate the differences in gendered representation amongst certain markers of law school success: graduation with Latin honors (by the class of 2018) and current membership of the Harvard Law Review, the Board of Student Advisors, and the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau.

The HLS administration unfortunately does not keep or publish data on gender within these groups. Despite the continued relevance of gender gaps in conventional measures of achievement at HLS, the WLA was forced to gather data independently to figure out what progress, if any, had been made toward parity. While we were still able to conduct the analysis, it’s worth questioning why an institution with the resources of HLS relies on its students to further the conversation about equal representation, rather than taking up the mantle itself.

In order to analyze Latin honors, we acquired a copy of this past year’s commencement pamphlet from the Registrar’s Office, which listed those graduating cum laude, magna cum laude, and summa cum laude. We then attempted to tally gender through online searches.[1] We realize that this method is imperfect because it relies in part on assumptions about gender identity. We urge the HLS administration to begin recording and collecting this information based on self-reporting so that we do not need to rely on such obviously problematic methods. For membership organizations, we looked to published lists or asked the organizations for information directly. We cross-checked membership data with acquaintances or relied on connections within groups to confirm gender breakdown.[2]

With this data in hand, we calculated the “expected” proportions of men and women (based off of the number of men and women in the relevant graduating classes).[3] While narrowly avoiding harrowing flashbacks to undergraduate statistics courses, we used a relatively simple Chi-Square fit test to compare this to the observed breakdown to see whether there was a statistically significant difference between the two. Results from this analysis are reported below.

III. Results

  • Latin Honors

Of the four student groups and awards examined, only Latin Honors had statistically significant deviation from the expected gender breakdown (c2 = 4.53 , P =0.03). Men constitute 58% of students graduating with Latin honors, as compared to women’s 40%. Ultimately, 45% of men in the class of 2018 earned Latin honors, while only 33% of females in the class did so. This means that a male student is more likely to obtain Latin honors from the second he steps on campus.

Unfortunately, these results are in line with the findings of past years. Even with anonymous grading, men consistently outperform women academically at HLS. Despite this long-standing trend and a direct request from WLA last year, the HLS administration has yet to investigate this grade gap. It is imperative that HLS investigate this trend and work with administrators, professors, and students to rectify it.

  • Harvard Law Review

Historically, men have been overrepresented in law review journals both nationally and at Harvard. Given this, it is incredibly exciting that women currently constitute 52% of the Harvard Law Review (HLR) staff. The Law Review accepted its first majority woman-and-non-binary class in 2017, and the current class, Volume 133, is also majority female and non-binary. The majority of the current HLR leadership is also female.

We do not see these significant achievements as chance. Harvard Law Review has worked to encourage students who have been historically underrepresented on the Law Review, including women, to consider HLR and pick up and complete the annual write-on competition —  perhaps in light of the historic trend towards greater male participation in the competition. Leila Bijan, JD’19, described the impact of these efforts on her decision to pursue HLR membership: “Women-focused recruitment efforts strongly impacted my decision to pursue the Write On competition. As a 1L with no familiarity with the Law Review, I was grateful for the various opportunities to meet and hear from women editors. This demystified the Law Review and made me feel like being selected as an editor was a realistic goal.”

The Harvard Women’s Law Association has also encouraged their members to participate in the write-on competition by hosting an informational networking event and a write-on study break. We believe that these and other efforts have contributed and will continue to contribute to the increased gender parity on HLR.

These significant achievements have not gone unnoticed by HLR members. Imani Franklin, JD’19, spoke to WLA about her experience working on Law Review: “Coming into HLR, I was worried that I wouldn’t feel comfortable in the Gannett House space as a black woman because I thought HLR had a reputation of being culturally dominated by politically moderate and conservative white men. My actual experience has been nothing like that. My volume was the first in the Law Review’s history to have more women than men, and I have found the community to be a vibrant space where women, non-binary folks, and people of color are celebrated. In the HLR community, I’ve felt like I’m able to be my full self rather than checking parts of my identity at the door.”

Leila Bijan described a similarly positive experience upon joining Law Review: “The emphasis on empowering women has continued beyond recruitment. Now as an editor, I find great support within our Diversity Committee, Women, Nonbinary, and Transgender Committee, and through HLR-wide initiatives that address sneaking gender disparities present in the type of work we do.”  We commend the Harvard Law Review on both these internal initiatives and their hard work recruiting applicants who have been historically underrepresented.

  • Board of Student Advisors

There is an exact parity in the current gender breakdown for Board of Student Advisor members, with 21 female BSAs and 21 male BSAs. The diversity of the Board of Student Advisors is particularly important since BSAs serve as both academic and personal mentors to 1L students. According to Emmy Williams, head of the BSA selections committee, “to be effective mentors, advisers, and teachers, the membership of the BSA should reflect the diversity of the student body, including its gender diversity.” The even gender distribution of BSAs also ensures that first-year students see both females and males in leadership roles at HLS from day one of orientation.

Accordingly, the BSA reaches out to organizations such as WLA, Lambda, and QTPOC to recruit applicants. Applicants are also encouraged to write in their applications about how their identities and experiences have shaped their experience at HLS and would contribute to their work as BSAs. These strategies appear to be working to ensure diversity in BSA membership, and we commend the BSA on their hard work in this arena. Given the important and highly visible role that BSAs play for 1Ls, it is crucial that this even gender divide is maintained.  

  • Harvard Legal Aid Bureau

The Harvard Legal Aid Bureau is currently 60% female and 40% male (excluding three students who declined to specify their gender). While this gap is not statistically significant, it is interesting to note and is consistent with past years of WLA data.

It is not clear why women typically constitute the majority of HLAB. Are women more frequently encouraged by advisors to pursue clinics rather than black-letter courses or advanced seminars? Could a proclivity towards clinics be harming women’s chances at obtaining Latin Honors? While our data does not answer these questions, we feel that a more comprehensive study by the administration could provide these types of crucial insights about the strengths and the weaknesses of the female experience at HLS.

IV. Conclusion

In sum, we are cautiously optimistic about the state of gender disparity at HLS. We are encouraged by the active steps that student organizations are taking to recruit women, and we are proud that these organizations are successfully achieving or nearing gender parity. It is a huge milestone for all three student organizations studied to have achieved gender parity and one that is very worthy of celebration.

However, the credit for these successes belongs to these student organizations, rather than the HLS administration. Our sole statistically significant finding was the high level of male inclusion in Latin Honors over females. The reason for this consistent gender grade gap remains unknown and largely uninvestigated, and we feel strongly that the administration must invest in identifying the root causes of this persistent gender disparity.

The Harvard Law Review, Board of Student Advisors, and Harvard Legal Aid Bureau have proven that gender parity is possible at HLS, so why hasn’t the administration taken any steps to remedy the inequalities in grading? HLS professors, students, and administrators will only be able to work to remedy this remaining gap once the reasons behind it have been identified, and only then will HLS move towards true gender equality.

[1] Using this methodology, we were able to identify the gender of all but five students who received Latin Honors. These five students were excluded from the analysis.

[2] Those that declined to specify gender or identified as non-binary were not included in our analyses. We chose to exclude these individuals in order to avoid non-binary erasure by lumping individuals who identify as non-binary in with one side of the male-female dichotomy that informed our analytic methods. At the same time, we recognize that this highlights the potentially problematic nature of a dichotomy for assessing gender parity in the first place.

[3] We did this using data provided from the registrar’s office about the gender breakdown of the classes of 2018, 2019, and 2020. In the data we received, one student in the class of 2019 was undeclared as to gender. They were excluded from the analysis for the reasons noted above.

Katie Cion & Sarah Parker

Katie Cion and Sarah Parker are 1Ls. They are members of the Women's Law Association's Research Committee.

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