Women’s Work, Women’s Grade Gap

On Tuesday, Harvard hosted “Harvard Hears You: The 2019 Summit for Gender Equity,” a University-wide event sponsored by the Title IX Office and the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs. The Summit’s organizers hoped the event would address pressing questions about gender equity at Harvard. Ostensibly, this was an important step in what must be a long-term school-wide reckoning with gender justice.

Yet to many student advocates, the event seemed a flashy attempt to distract from administrative inaction. Organizers at Harvard Law School know that this event does little to address the trenchant gendered inequities on our campus. At HLS, only 23 percent of tenured, non-clinical faculty members are women. The HLS administration has never addressed the sexual assault and harassment allegations facing Supreme Court Justice and HLS lecturer Brett Kavanaugh and former Ninth Circuit Judge Alex Kozinski. The school has failed to do notable work to remedy the disturbing racial and gender inequities in federal clerkships (since 2005, 85 percent of Supreme Court clerks have been non-Hispanic white men).

And, this February, the Women’s Law Association released data on the gendered achievement gaps at HLS. Their results sustain what has been a persistent trend since women first arrived on this campus in 1950: men academically outperform women. Notably, men are more likely than women to earn Latin Honors; last year, 58 percent of the students who graduated with Latin Honors were men. The administration has yet to interrogate this striking disparity.

Katie Cion and Sarah Parker, who collected these data, note the gap is “difficult to explain,” particularly given Harvard’s anonymous grading system (designed in part to guard against biases in grading). They offer as explanations the continued paucity of women professors, both tenured and untenured, and social norms that celebrate confidence and aggression in men, but penalize those same traits in women. Perhaps, they posit, men are more comfortable asking questions in class or attending office hours.

Those are likely contributing factors. But Cion and Parker did not mention what has become clear to me this year: women at HLS tend to devote more passion, energy, and time to organizing, advising, rallying, supporting communities, and, significantly, shouldering the emotional burdens of this work than men do. I have noticed this in my classes, in my clubs, and in on-campus organizing. I noticed it, in particular, when President Donald Trump nominated Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court. Kavanaugh, at the time, was slated to teach a winter-session class at HLS. In the weeks surrounding Kavanaugh’s confirmation, and the broadcasting of Christine Blasey Ford’s harrowing testimony, HLS’s leaders remained distressingly silent.

But Pipeline Parity Project, a student-led organization dedicated to combating harassment and discrimination in the legal profession, marshaled a campus-wide movement in the wake of the nomination. They orchestrated a walkout and rally for survivors, designed and distributed hundreds of “I Believe Christine Blasey Ford” buttons, and forcefully urged the administration to address the multiple allegations of assault. They repeatedly called on Dean Manning to release a statement condemning sexual violence and to offer administrative support to survivors. Pipeline’s active membership comprises mostly women. While Manning and the administration stayed silent, students — mainly women, many of them survivors — filled that silence with their noise.

As a newly-arrived first-year law student and a survivor of sexual assault, I quickly learned to rely on students — particularly 2L and 3L women — rather than on administrators, professors, and even Title IX officers, none of whom offered any meaningful or structural support to me or my classmates in the weeks surrounding the hearing.  The emails I received about support spaces and resources for those seeking help all came from students, not from administrators.

In those early weeks, the women of Pipeline took on hours of exhausting organizational work, all while attending classes and clinics and completing readings. When I think of my first weeks on campus, I think of the women who created spaces for survivors and reserved rooms to watch the hearing. I think of the five women who led the walkout. And I think: where were the professors? Where was the administration? And, importantly, where were the men?

Certainly, men attended the rally; some even wore Pipeline’s buttons. And, on the day of the hearing, students of all genders filled a classroom to watch a live-stream of the testimony (students reserved the room, students set up the screen, students paid for and provided lunch, and students sent out the emails). But the leaders and organizers of the walkout, and of the movement more broadly, were women. A small group of women took on extra hours of work to coordinate a response to the confirmation and to Harvard’s administrative inaction. Surely, men and women shared the anger; but men and women did not share the work.

That Fall, I was distraught by the news and found it difficult to focus on classes. I was thinking, instead, of my own assault. I was thinking about Christine Blasey Ford, about Anita Hill, about sexual abusers in positions of power. I was not alone. Emma Janger, a 2L, a leader in Pipeline and a survivor, recalls feeling unable to focus on her courses:

“I don’t think about the readings I did or the classes I attended. Instead I think about organizing with other women on campus who were affected by Kavanaugh to oppose his confirmation. I think about working to create spaces for community on campus. And I think about sitting in class, completely focused on Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony. All of that was work and none of it was for credit.”

Another 2L involved in organizing a response to the confirmation, who prefers to remain anonymous, said, “I probably spent 100 hours over two weeks talking about, thinking about, and planning the response.” She attended “multiple meetings with Dean Manning.” In each meeting, she felt she spent “at least ten times as much time thinking about the issue as he did.” On the day of the walkout, she attended a class with only one other woman. The professors asked if any of the students had attended the walkout earlier that day, and “not one of the men said they attended. It was striking.”

In her final meeting with Manning, at which she said he explained to a room of many survivors that he would not speak out about whether the allegations against Kavanaugh should be investigated because these were “political issues,” she walked out of the room. She recalls, “I was incredibly frustrated that he could not understand why this was not a political issue. But more importantly, I realized what a waste of my precious time it had been. I walked out, cried in the bathroom for a little bit, bucked up, and got back to my to-do list.”

She told me that last semester she received the worst set of grades in all her three semesters at HLS.

Grace Wallack, a 3L, remembered a similarly gendered divide in the wake of the 2016 election during her 1L year. The election, she recalled, “was clearly especially hard for women and people of color.” But, she said, “Many white men in my section were noticeably unaffected and were often absent from our community meetings.” She continued, “It became quite obvious on whom the emotional toll fell.”       

This gendered imbalance is not Harvard-specific. Just as women, people of color, LGBTQ people, and survivors on our campus disproportionately bore the burden of challenging the Kavanaugh confirmation, so too do these groups frequently take on the unpaid labor of organizing and volunteering for political and social movements. Journalist Rebecca Traister documents this trend throughout her recent book Good and Mad, but one vignette in particular stands out: when Trump announced his travel ban in 2017 (certainly not a gendered issue), protesters and public interest lawyers rushed to airports across the nation to offer support and legal aid. The majority of those protesters and lawyers were women.

And yet, men continue to outnumber women in the federal judiciary, in Congress, and in positions of political power. Indeed, the law clerks on the Supreme Court are still mostly white and mostly men. The HLS administration must commit to addressing these disparities and to examining the ways in which the gendered grade gap at Harvard widens the gendered gaps in politics and legal professions throughout the country.

The administration can begin by collecting data on the gendered inequity in academic honors at the law school and investigating its causes. The women students who collected last year’s data used a left-over commencement pamphlet to tally, by hand, the men and women recipients of Latin Honors. They acknowledge “this method is imperfect because it relies in part on assumptions about gender” and they “urge the HLS administration to begin recording and collecting this information.” Harvard even places the burden of discovering and disclosing gendered inequities on the very women these inequities harm.

When an administration fails to address school-wide inequities, both racial and gendered, students must shoulder the organizational and emotional labor of uncovering and correcting those failures, of fighting for a more equitable school. Indeed, the students most harmed by these inequities—women, people of color, queer, trans and nonbinary folks, survivors—disproportionately assume this labor. It is unsurprising, then, that inequities arise and persist: more men receive Honors, more men receive tenure, more men receive prestigious clerkships. I urge the administration to interrogate the ways in which it is complicit in entrenching these inequities.

Megan Jones

Megan Jones is a 1L.

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