Saturday, January 30, 2010

Battle of the Sexes: Law School Edition

One of our readers recently made a comment about needing more estrogen on the blog, and that comment provoked a few thoughts that I've been internally debating for almost three years now. Female law students vs. male law students: where do the differences stem from and how much of it is just gender stereotyping?

Let's begin with the socratic method. I have interviewed several professors that were applying to teach at Penn, and a decent number of them have discussed using different teaching methods to accommodate both genders. Apparently, male students are more likely to raise their hands and think about the answer after being called upon whereas female students will formulate a full answer before volunteering. As a result, when called upon during the socratic method, male students are presumably more comfortable whereas female students appreciate something more like a panel system so they can plan ahead. Is this true?

Moving on to class selection. Why is it that even in a fairly liberal institution, people make jokes or references to how girls take classes like Church and State or Family Law whereas guys take classes like M&A or Tax? What on earth would make someone think that a female cannot handle rigorous corporate law courses? On the other hand, I really do wonder if it's true. There are less females in such classes. Is it because girls feel like they can't handle it, or is it because guys are so insecure about taking other types of classes and feel the "manly" thing to do is go corporate and take classes in that field? I say that with no amount of sarcasm. I really do wonder why the proportions turn out as they do. On the other hand, if you take a class like Gender and the Law, you get a room full of estrogen. Why is that considered a women's class? Is it because male law students believe that gender law doesn't affect them? Well, lots of law probably will not end up affecting all of us. Yet, students readily sign up for things like Refugee Law, Mental Health Law, and Public International Law. What is it about gender related classes that really translates to "female law"?

Last but not least, what about firms? Why do a lot of top firms have proportionally fewer female summer associates? Some argue that they recruit less females even at top schools, while others argue that female students actually choose not to interview with such firms because they do not want to take on such a strenuous lifestyle. The feminist in me wants to yell at the latter group, but I've actually heard female students say the same thing. That usually then makes me want to yell at them, but who am I to judge? I still think it has to do with the firms, but I really hope it's not because elite law firms remain modern versions of Mad Men.

I say all of this with the caveat that, as much as I am fairly liberal and a strong proponent of women's rights, I generally prefer to focus less on my gender and more on my objective merits. I'm not sure what more estrogen means, but I thank that reader for his/her comment. It really made me think.


  1. This is a narrow-minded view on the roles of sexes in school. Have you ever simply thought that preferences are the dividing line?

  2. Are you "shocked"? At your own law school, the law review is basically all male. Almost everyone who got honors at graduation the last two years is male. Same goes for Keedy cup. Take a look at the competitors throughout the years.

  3. I have realized that. The question is, why? Why does that happen? Do you think that it's because male law students are just smarter? Is that what it is? Or are you implying that the law school is sexist?

  4. I think there's a degree of self-selection. A lot of female students aren't as ambitious because, frankly, they don't need to be.

  5. 4:09 is correct. I have a female classmate at my law school who clearly told us on day 1 she wasn't going to try hard because she was only in school for the education. Her plan was to get the degree for fun before getting married and being a stay at home mom. Last I heard, she's doing exactly that.

  6. I think it's self-selection, but with the self-selection being driven by societal expectations of gender roles. It's more acceptable for a woman to take a public interest job and be supported by a partner who has a law firm job or other relatively steady and stable source of income than for the opposite situation. I think this is why, when I was in law school, the academic aspect - law review and honors etc was pretty evenly split between male and female students but when it came to recruiting, the public interest recruiting events were dominated by female law students and the law firm recruiting (and thus law firms) dominated by male students. And I would think career choice feeds back into class selection. So yeah, I guess in a way going "corporate" is the "manly" thing to do. As an anecdote I remember a conversation I had with two of my female friends, both of whom are going into public interest, and they sort-of-jokingly-but-not-really were talking about how they wanted to marry a rich guy so they can focus on their public interest work. Not exactly hard evidence but I thought it was interesting nonetheless.

    What do you think can be done to change the situation and get a better gender balance in the different areas of the law?

  7. Also, do you think that whatever is creating this gender gap in law school and the legal profession is the same thing driving the fact that not many girls major in math/science and not many guys major in english/humanities? Or does the legal world have its own set of problems?

  8. I've always wondered about the subject distinction, especially because I've always loved math and english, so I seem to be an aberration. I don't know if it's the same driving force. I think it's more intriguing in a law school setting, because at some point you assume that everyone had the same criteria to get in, so how does all of that change in the classroom and during recruitment? I wish I had a good answer for how to solve it, but I don't. I really want to say it's the guys, but these comments are making me think it's certain girls that may be perpetuating the problem. That's just scary.

  9. There's been an interesting tangential discussion on the Freakonomics blog about male/female wage gaps in general, and resulting from b-school.
    The long and short of it is that researchers (featured in Superfreakonomics) believe that while discrimination exists, it is "desire — or the lack thereof — that accounts for most of the wage gap. They also mention "Even within high-paying occupations like medicine and law, women tend to choose specialties that pay less (general practitioner, for instance, or in-house counsel)."

    A female reader and b-school grad on the blog had a great response btw.

    To the extent that male-female gaps are the result of discrimination or cultural conditioning, we should obviously do our best to eliminate that. But the second link provides a very interesting perspective, many women pursue grad school, not because they are solely career focused, but BECAUSE they want to have families, and know that having grad school will be a great way to get back into the workforce after the interruption of raising children. This may lead to lower wages relatively (because that gap will lead to lower experience all things being equal), but it may mean that women are systematically making different choices with respect to career even when we're looking at high performing women in grad school. Presumably they are making these choices because they think it's in their long term interest, even if it's not in their monetary interest, don't you think? Or is this just an excuse to accept systematic and structural discrimination?

  10. I've actually heard the same thing from a friend of mine who said she would like to get a graduate degree now so she can take time off when she has kids and feel like she still has some bargaining power when she returns to the workforce. It might lead to lower wages in the long run, but I'm not sure how it applies to actual performance or selection of classes in school. Maybe their mentality about the future affects how ambitious they are in the short term? That infuriates me!

  11. It's easy to point to absolute numbers and percentages, and wring hands over over the insideous glass ceiling. That's been done since the 1960s' second wave. It's quite another to look at the long-term data to determine the changing trends in legal employment, which suggests a rapidly growing proportion of women in the industry.

    Even committed feminists will find it difficult to dispute the argument that women in the developed world are better off now than at any point in modern history.

  12. Why does it make you angry that other people choose to have a different work / rest-of-life balance than you do? Could they be just as "infuriated" that you choose to spend more time working and less time taking care of yourself? I just think it's silly to say that someone else shouldn't spend their time in the way they've decided to.

  13. I have no problem with they way people choose their time. I guess what infuriates me is the idea that it has to be one or the other. Why is it that if I spend more time working, that means I'm taking less care of myself, and if this is true, why should it be that women who go to grad school thinking they will eventually stop working to have kids end up thinking that they just can't pursue certain ambitions? You can get a degree for any reason you want, and for women who make a conscious choice, that's great. However, what infuriates me is the potential for women to think they can't apply to certain firms because they later want to stop working and have kids. The problem is, that it may be true.

  14. 5:10 - I agree with Robin. The problem isn't with the fact that women may make a certain choice. The problem is that their choice may be influenced by societal expectations of a woman's role in society so that the choice they make isn't really their own anymore. I think one way to help the situation is to make an effort to decide how to live your life that is independent of what society expects. If enough women do this, then existing expectations will be undermined and there will be more role models for different types of career paths.

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