Law School battles gender imbalance

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Photo by Daniel Sisgoreo.

Men are 16 percent more likely to speak in class than women in Yale Law School courses, according findings in a study released by a Law School student group last week.

The group, Yale Law Women, replicated a study of gender dynamics it conducted at the school in 2002. The 93-page study — which included interviews with 54 of 83 non-visiting faculty members, observations of student participation in 113 sessions of 21 Law School courses and a survey of 62 percent of the student body — found that women are 1.5 percent more likely to speak up in class now than they were 10 years ago, among several other observations. The majority of students and faculty interviewed by the News said gender imbalances are an endemic problem in the legal profession and are not unique to the Law School, though many were disappointed by the lack of substantial improvement over the decade.

“What we found is that participation by women in the classroom has improved, but the rate is very slow,” said Fran Faircloth LAW ’12, a Yale Law Women co-chair for the study. “If we continue at the same rate, the gender gap won’t close until 2083.”

The report, titled “Yale Law School Faculty and Students Speak Up about Gender: Ten Years Later,” assesses students’ interactions with faculty both in and out of the classroom, and compiled recommendations on how to minimize gender differences in the Law School community based on survey and interview responses. Recommendations to faculty include practicing more “conscientious classroom management” — for example, waiting for five seconds rather than calling on the first student to raise his or her hand — while recommendations to students include being more proactive in interacting with professors.

Law School professor Lea Brilmayer, who has taught at Yale “off and on” for 30 years after becoming one of the first female professors at the Law School, said she found the study depressing because it contradicted her feeling that gender dynamics at the school have improved in recent years. Brilmayer pointed to several institutional changes she said contribute to her attitude, including the greater prevalence of women on the faculty, all of whom she described as “first-rate intellectual heavyweights.” For the 2011-’12 academic year, 22 out of 104 Yale Law School professors were women, according to the survey.

The majority of students interviewed attributed the results of the study to historic gender inequalities within the legal profession.

Jennifer Skene LAW ’14, who served as a faculty interviewer for the report, said she feels legal education often perpetuates an “image of the dominant male lawyer.” Though she said the problem is systemic rather than created by a specific set of people at Yale, she added that the issue leads some women to feel insecure.

Skene added that she feels some males at top law schools are likely to be more confident than their female counterparts — a reality she said is evident at Yale Law School.

“There’s very much this male in-group here,” Skene said. “And if you’re in that, you’re very much at the top of the world. This is true in the [first-year] class — I feel it’s very fratty and very insular, even more so than the Law School itself.”
Some students and faculty interviewed by the News said the study highlights differences in temperament between the genders.

Fiona Heckscher LAW ’14 said some women might be more inclined than their male counterparts to fully process their thoughts before speaking up in class. Rather than encourage women to participate more frequently in the classroom, she said, the report should prompt some male students to “step down a little bit.”

Joshua Rosenthal LAW ’13 said in an email that the study made him realize that he sometimes finds himself perpetuating the gender gap.

“There have been classes where I realize I have spoken every single session for weeks, where many of my (unbelievably brilliant) friends who are women haven’t,” he said in an email. “And I don’t consider myself to be much of a ‘gunner.’”

Deputy Dean Douglas Kysar said in an email Wednesday that he thinks men more frequently subscribe to “the narrative of progress through failure.” He added that men can often overcome certain obstacles more quickly than women.

“If a male student asks a question that is dismissed by the professor or gets turned down after seeking mentorship, the student can laugh it off and keep raising his hand and knocking on office doors,” Kysar said. “These rejections might culturally ‘encode’ differently when the student is female, and thus the student might be more deterred from making an initial overture.”

Nafees Syed LAW ’14, who interviewed faculty for the survey, said she hopes the study will begin a broader dialogue in higher education and prompt other institutions to conduct similar studies.

Of 629 registered J.D. students, 389 responded to the survey.

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