Gender Bias in Law Schools (And What You Might Be Able To Do About It)

Gender Bias in Law Schools (And What You Might Be Able To Do About It)The week we welcome back guest writer Kathryn Blair to talk about gender bias in law school, and some ideas for combatting it.

Statistics released by the American Bar Association (ABA) Commission on Women in the Profession show women have been inching closer and closer to receiving half of J.D.s awarded in the United States, finally appearing to have achieved that parity in 2018. Contributing to that, 2016 marked the first year that women made up more than half of the student body at law schools in the United States.

Despite these significant advancements, women still lag behind men in other areas of the profession: law firm partners, law school administration positions, federal judgeships, and salary. Scholars and commentators have pointed to a variety of factors to explain this across the profession, but two that are particularly interesting given law school trends, are differential admission practices at law schools and performance in law school. Statistics from 2018 show that men still outnumber women at the top five law schools, and in some studies, women received lower grades than men do in law school. The common wisdom is that law school ranking and small differences in grades can have a big impact on obtaining prestigious clerkships and jobs at top firms.

Given this landscape, is there anything that you can do to reduce the impact gender bias might have on your law school career, if you are a woman, or combat gender bias in law school more generally? Recent studies about gender bias in law school (mostly directed at advising administration and instructors) indicate there might be a few things you can do, even as a student:

1. Small Class Sizes

According to a 2014 study by Daniel Ho and Mark Kelman, women seem to do slightly worse than men in large classes. However, in small classes, women seem to do as well as men. Their study was based on students randomly being assigned to small or large sections for required first year courses at Stanford Law School from 2001-2008 and builds on the research of others, studying the impact of class-size on gender bias in law schools and other educational settings. You can leverage these findings to reduce the impact of gender bias in several ways. If you are still choosing between law schools, consider class sizes (and not solely ranking) in your decision. This could have a positive personal impact for you, if you are concerned about the impact of gender bias on yourself, but can also have a positive broader impact as more students identify this as a concern in their decision-making process. And for those of you already in law school, consider seeking out some smaller classes (small lecture classes or seminars), or advocating for additional smaller classes with your law school’s administration.

2. Select for Pedagogy

According to the same study by Ho and Kelman, women tend to do slightly worse in courses that privilege competition (which the Socratic method can be interpreted to do), but equally well (and sometimes better) in courses with small writing assignments and simulations. Again, you can use this information to guide you in choosing between law schools, choosing classes, or advocating for pedagogical changes at your law school.

3. Office Hours

A 2014 survey about women’s experience at Yale Law School reports that men were more likely than women to approach professors with general ideas and non-specific questions. Women, on the other hand, were more likely to reach out to professors only when they had a specific and well-articulated question. However, the frequent and less-structured conversations with professors can be more likely to produce published work, collaboration, recommendations, and continued professional relationships. So don’t be afraid to reach out to your professors for professional and mentorship conversations, research questions, and ideas about your own writings and work.

4. Embrace (or at Least Hate a Little Less) Cold Calling

Many students dread cold calling. And it is easy to understand why. There is a surge of adrenaline, the fear of shame (usually unfounded) for not knowing something or not being prepared, and the risk of being judged by your professor. And yet… the 2014 survey cited above found that women and men law students participated at more comparable rates in courses where the professor used cold calling or a rotating panel system. Where such a strategy for calling on students was not used, male law students tended to participate (and be called on) more. That doesn’t mean that you have to love classes or professors that cold call, but try to see a positive side of such a system: more women participating and more women’s voices in the classroom. And in classes that don’t have cold calling or panel assignments, keep this tendency for different levels of participation between women and men in mind. If it feels consistently unbalanced, consider speaking with your professor or other students about ways to improve participation (this could be as simple as a professor giving students a few seconds to think before raising their hands to respond and calling on a student).

5. Positive Psychology

A 2012 article by Dara Purvis recommends applying lessons from “positive psychology,” the study of happiness, to reduce the tendency of women law students to self-exclude from important activities because of self-criticism. She concludes that while most women seem to suffer more in law school than their male colleagues, a small number of woman law students do respond well and excel. She identifies a tendency of women law students to be susceptible to self-criticism and negative self-assessment when comparing themselves to “the successful male-coded law student.” To help more women move from the former category into the latter, she recommends that women select courses and experiences that speak to their strengths and interests. Identifying strengths as well as greater significance in the work can constrain tendencies towards self-criticism or blunt their effect. If you find particular pedagogical styles, skills-based courses, or projects that appeal to you, pursue them. Some examples might include: clinics, pro-bono clubs, skills-based courses like negotiation, or research projects. You are less likely to be self-limiting when you are positively engaged.

While trends in the legal profession indicate law schools are producing more lawyers who are women than ever before, gender bias continues to haunt the profession. These are some ideas of ways to apply the research that scholars have published, helping you to make choices and advocate for yourself or women more generally as you proceed through your law school career.

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About Kathryn Blair

Kathryn is a tutor for the Law School Toolbox and Bar Exam Toolbox. She earned her MA and BA from Stanford University and her JD from Stanford Law School. After several years as a attorney with a large DC firm and then as corporate counsel for a Fortune 500 company, where she focused on international trade and investment law, she realized that she missed studying and teaching law and history. She is currently pursuing a Phd in legal history.

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