A Letter from the WLA Leadership

By the time we arrived at Harvard Law School we had already helped indict perpetrators of sexual assaults, earned an advanced degree and served as a staffer in the West Wing of the White House. We had already developed fierce work ethics and study skills that allowed us to graduate at the top of our undergraduate classes. We were already curious and creative, flexible and resilient, and accomplished.

There is no shortage of applications to Harvard Law School and we are humbled to be here. The admissions office has thousands of applications to choose from each year when assembling a class. Make no mistake: among the women at Harvard Law School, we are not atypical. The women admitted to Harvard Law School are just as capable and impressive as any of our classmates.

But something happens once we get here. Last year, only nine women were selected for the Harvard Law Review out of 44 total editors and only 18 out of the 60 students who graduated magna cum laude were women. The differences are significant because these credentials are passports to positions of leadership and power upon leaving law school.

In an April 5 piece, Mr. Taranto assumes, without any evidence, that it is something innate in Harvard Law’s women — their lack of equal talent and intelligence — which causes these disparities at Harvard. That this was Mr. Taranto’s instinctive explanation, and that he embraces it uncritically and without any empirical support, is alarming. In the process, he suggests Harvard Law School women are whiny and undeserving.

The Harvard Women’s Law Association has chosen to respond to these eye-opening, but unfortunately not aberrational outcomes rather differently. Instead of unthinkingly justifying these disparities through antiquated notions of inherent female inferiority, as Mr. Taranto seems to, we must explore whether there is something about Harvard Law School as an institution that causes these disparities, and what exactly we can do about it. With these goals in mind, and with the support of hundreds of HLS students and many student groups, the WLA supported the launch of an initiative called Shatter the Ceiling to learn about the disparity in grades and achievement at HLS not only between men and women, but also among other underrepresented groups.

The coalition’s plan includes: first, pressuring the administration to release the data that it already has on men and women’s achievement, both upon entering law school and throughout their time at Harvard; secondly, using the tremendous academic resources at Harvard’s disposal to gather the right data to allow us to understand what is really going on and how best to address it; and third, developing changes that address the root causes of these disparities. The Socratic method was developed at Harvard Law School in the Julia Grant era. We want to develop law school education for the Michelle Obama age.

Shatter the Ceiling struck a chord. Almost three hundred students — men and women —  and several professors came to the launch of the Shatter the Ceiling campaign.  We all want to see HLS do better by its students. Less than a year after a presidential race between two Harvard Law graduates, we know the significance of ensuring that women and other traditionally disenfranchised groups have an equal shot at success.  

The problem of gender disparities at law school is not new. And it is not confined to Harvard. Yale’s corresponding women’s organization, Yale Law Women, released a definitive ten year study that echoed and supported some of the same basic concerns last year (http://www.law.yale.edu/stuorgs/speakup.htm).

Gender-based disparities in academic accolades at top-tier law schools have implications that reach far beyond Cambridge or New Haven. Top law schools channel immense amounts of privilege and power. Harvard is overrepresented on the federal bench, in boardrooms, and in Congress. As long as that continues to be a reality, then everyone concerned about diverse leadership (especially in the wake of 2012’s election season) should care about gender equality in this country’s “pipeline” institutions.

We know that at the outset Harvard Law School has tremendous faith in the men and women it selects to join its ranks each year. We truly believe Harvard Law School is the best place for a woman to launch her legal career – but it can do better by its women still. We’re here to help and we’re up to the challenge.

 

 

Stephanie Davidson, HLS ‘13

Outgoing President, Harvard Women’s Law Association

 

Nitzan Weizmann, HLS ‘14

Incoming President, Harvard Women’s Law Association

 

Julie Brinn Siegel, HLS ‘15

Incoming Vice-President, Harvard Women’s Law Association

 

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