When the Class of 2004 Law Review members congregated as a group for the first time this August, they found that a surprising three-quarters of them shared a common characteristic — they were men. Despite a “double-blind” selection process and recruitment efforts geared towards women, only 11 of the 43 successful 2L applications this year were those of women.
The percentage of incoming women this year is the lowest it has been since 1995, when the numbers also stood at 11 out of 43. In the years between, the figure has hovered between 30 and 50 percent. In 2001, 17 out of 46 editors chosen were women; in 2000, the numbers were 18 out of 41.
These dramatic figures — especially given that women make up 44 percent of the class of 2004 — have led Review members to question why the numbers turned out the way they did. However, the very mechanisms that are intended to ensure anonymity and fairness during the selection process inhibit efforts to unearth the root of the problem: Whether women are simply self-selecting out of the application process, or whether something much deeper is going on.
“What is frustrating to us is that it has been important historically that the application process be extremely confidential,” said Law Review treasurer, 3L Allison Tirres. “We have a double-blind process in place which stands in the way of our trying to gather the data that might be helpful for figuring out, for example, whether women simply aren’t taking the competition.”
The Law Review makes every effort to ensure the selection process is totally blind. Applications are filtered through two layers of numerical assignments before they are read by as many as six different editors. The process is so secretive that even after it is complete, the identities of those who “graded on,” who filled the discretionary spaces pursuant to the Review’s affirmative action policy, and those not chosen at all are never revealed, not even to the members themselves.
Included in the application materials was an optional demographic survey not used in the decision-making process. However, “not even a majority of applicants filled one out,” said Tirres, rendering it difficult for the Review to gauge from the surveys how many of the 171 completed applications came from women.
Given the importance of this data to understanding the problem, Law Review president 3L Bert Huang said the Review would consider consulting an independent third party to review the list of applicants to provide an accurate gender ratio of applicants, which he perceives as a “critical piece of information” to have in understanding the issue. In addition, Huang said that although the current 3L editors voted last year not to make the optional demographic survey mandatory, the current 2L editors could consider making it mandatory for next year’s competition if they wished.
If the low number of women is an issue of recruitment, 3L editors were particularly disappointed given their recent efforts. Last spring, the Review held special information sessions for women, hoping to address specific concerns of women about life on Law Review and to attract more of them to take the competition. In light of this, 3L Executive Editor Elizabeth Kennedy felt disappointed and worried when she learned of the gender ratio among 2L editors. “Our efforts to prevent the percentage of women from slipping [even lower than in years past] just didn’t work, and that is dispiriting,” she said.
An alternative explanation for the gender imbalance on the Review is that the 2L editor positions reserved for those who “grade on” adversely affect women. Prior to the institutional changes made to the first year experience, the top three applicants from each of four sections were evaluated for admission based 70 percent on grades and 30 percent on the writing competition. Last year, the two applicants with the highest GPAs in each of seven sections graded on, increasing the number of grade-on spots from 12 to 14.
Several studies, most notably one conducted in 1994 by Professor Lani Guinier from a sample of University of Pennsylvania law students, indicate that men earn higher grades than women on average in law school and by the end of the first year are more than three times as likely to be in the top ten percent of their class. Similarly, a Law Review gender task force formed in 1996 found that the median GPAs of women who applied to the Review were lower than those of men.
Two-L editor Amanda Straub sees this issue as an important starting point to correcting the gender imbalance. “We should question why [the imbalance in first-year grades] is so,” she said. “Are pedagogical strategies not as conducive to the way women learn? Is the format of the average 1L exam unfavorable to the way women think? Maybe these disparate numbers point to a greater problem in the law school as a whole.”
In addition to these larger institutional questions, this data has made some Review members reconsider the role grades play in the selection process. Eliminating grades from the process altogether was considered in 1996 in the wake of the findings of the task force, but the proposal was rejected 47-21. In light of this year’s low number of women editors, Kennedy suggested it may be time to “rethink our entire selection process. . .Perhaps we should reduce or eliminate the role grades play in editor selection,” she said.
Various editors have also speculated that inherent biases in the substance and structure of the competition could provide another possible explanation for the low number of women. However, as 2L editor Corrine Irish explained, “These are just guesses. It’s really hard to say without investigating the issue.”
One potential remedy to the under-representation of women on the Review is the addition of gender as a discretionary category to the Review’s affirmative action policy. Currently, the Review reserves seven to nine discretionary spots for which they can take into account an applicant’s physical disability or membership in a historically underrepresented or disadvantaged racial or ethnic group.
Last winter, the Review seriously considered a proposal to add gender as a category. The change was initially approved by the then-2L class of editors but was ultimately rejected when voted on by the Law Review at large. Although the low number of women in this year’s class has prompted editors to re-engage in the affirmative action debate, members still have mixed feelings.
“There are strong feelings among the editorial staff on both sides of the affirmative action issue,” Tirres said, “which is not surprising given that we are on a law school campus, where these things are hotly debated.”
“It would be unfortunate to use only an affirmative action remedy but permit the competition to continue to be corrupted, if that’s the case,” said 2L editor Meaghan McLaine, “but if it isn’t feasible to take a holistic approach, I’d support a systemic one like affirmative action.”
Huang said it was important to guard against knee-jerk reactions. “I think it’s easy to react and say, ‘What great irony — clearly it was a mistake [not to add gender as a discretionary category],’” he said. “But I think there is a lot of learning and data-gathering, a lot of looking into what the task force in 1996 found, before we can understand the situation. Once we have that information, we will have the material for a serious and open discussion about what is the right thing to do.”
Regardless of what the Review chooses to do in the future, many members expressed concern that the 11 women in this year’s class feel welcome. “I was afraid that [the 2L women] would feel isolated or have a negative experience on the Review either because of their small numbers or because they would immediately find themselves, simply owing to their gender, in the center of a controversy that started before they joined us,” said Kennedy.
To guard against that, 3L women editors have made special efforts to reach out to 2L women. Tirres and Huang arranged for 3L women to contact 2L women before they even arrived on campus, and 3L women hosted a women’s night during orientation.
Thus far, 2L women report positive experiences despite the low numbers. “Working on Law Review has just been a wonderful experience so far,” said McLaine. “It’s an incredibly friendly and open environment, with a lack of competitiveness that is refreshing after the stresses of 1L year.”
Two-L Alice Wang agreed. “I’ve had a great experience so far. The women in my class are very active and vocal, so it doesn’t seem like our small numbers are detracting from our experience as a group.”
Perhaps what the 2L women lack in numbers, they compensate for in strength. As Kennedy noted, “They seem to me to be a particularly strong and confident group of women.”