Law School battles gender imbalance

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.


  • Arthur1984

    It could be that women are statistically lazier than men and should participate more in class rather than sit there like vegetables. Surely we should be giving a thumbs up to the men for class participation and seeking out mentorship relationships. Well done guys!!

    The possible interpretations and framings of this data are endless. If this is the bunkum coming out of one of America’s top law schools then God help us.

    • ldffly

      I was going to make a post in line with the point of your second paragraph. I decided not to because I didn’t have the guts to be first. Shame on me!

  • edm2012

    Thanks for discussing this endemic problem, great article

  • YLShellene

    The interpretations provided are interesting because they come from Yale Law women and from YLS faculty–that is, the subjects of the study themselves and their instructors. Accordingly, those interpretations are valuable to provide in this article.

    As for the contention that women are statistically lazier than men, I think you might want to look into grade disparities (or LACK thereof) before putting that explanation forth. Considering that women are performing very well on exams, it does not seem that women are sitting around lazy with their coursework but rather are intellectually engaged in class and in their readings. Furthermore, if you look at our broader culture, there is an issue with women having to doing EVERYTHING from housework to childcare to full-time, prestigious jobs (particularly if you look at the population this study examines). To me, it is laughable that you think that the laziness of YLS women is the driving force behind this class participation disparity.

    • Arthur1984

      The fact you bothered to comment on the possible interpretation I made for purposes of example boggles the mind, and further reinforces my concern about Yale Law School.

      • YLShellene

        Boggles the mind? It was clearly a provocative “possible interpretation”

        • Arthur1984

          Yes boggles the mind. I don’t recommend you read Jonathon Swift’s “A Modest Proposal”. God help America.

  • River_Tam

    I don’t see how this graph represents a problem with Yale Law School. Where are the statistics from comparable institutions (HLS, etc?). Where are the statistics on female and male assertiveness in non-law school environments? What were the response levels by gender? What do the graphs look like when you control for the gender of the professor?

    Moreover, what is the quality of the discourse? Why is the gap less pronounced via email than it is face-to-face?

    > 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.”

    Dumb, but telling. This graph doesn’t reveal if women are talking too little or men are just talking too much.

  • The Anti-Yale

    It’s simple and sexist: Haridan, virago.

    Ever heard these words?


  • The Anti-Yale

    OOOOPS! “Haridan” with one “r” is x-rated. I meant “harridan” with two “r’s”.

  • attila

    The only fact here is the YLS’s infinite capacity for gazing at its own navel.

  • Stephanie_Nichole

    Why does every difference between genders have to be made out as discrimination? There could be any number of reasons that women speak up less in class, and depending on that reason it might not even be a problem.

    But assuming that it is a problem, the solution shouldn’t be to lower men’s participation until numbers even out.

    • Arthur1984

      Well said. You have hit the nail on the head.

  • DocHollidaye

    Obviously, there are not enough outspoken women in the Law Program. I can’t imagine anyone not having anything at all to say in a class that is intellectually challenging.

    Thinking back on my classes I am trying remember if I noticed that males spoke up more than females…perhaps but I would need to look at the number of attending females vs. males in those particular classes. And there are times when students are merely pressed for time and want to move through the topic quickly believing that being quiet will help the Professor move through more information. So is it really quiet that is the issue or is it more efficient?

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