Women Law Students: Still Not Equal

January 5th, 2020 / By

The Law School Survey of Student Engagement (LSSSE) released its annual report just before the holiday break. This year’s report, titled “The Cost of Women’s Success,” explores the gendered nature of law students’ experience.

I had the honor of contributing a Foreword to the LSSSE report. Summing up the report’s findings, I wrote:

Two law students, a woman and a man, sit side-by-side in class. From the podium, they look similar: both concentrate intently on the professor, take notes, and listen to classmates’ comments. But, as this LSSSE report reveals, their broader law school experiences likely diverge in meaningful ways.

The man is more likely to have a parent who was a lawyer; he is also more likely to have a parent who attended college. When the professor pauses for questions, the man is more likely to raise his hand. If the man and women are Latinx, the gender difference in classroom participation will be particularly stark.

After class, the man is more likely to exercise, read for pleasure, and pursue other leisure activities. The woman is more likely to attend a student organization meeting, email a professor, or speak to an advisor about her career plans.

At the end of the day, the woman is less likely than the man to get a full night’s sleep: half of LSSSE’s women respondents report that they average no more than five hours of sleep a night. And when the woman wakes to face another demanding day, she is less likely to find institutional support for her burdens.

Nor do the woman’s challenges end with graduation. She is more likely than the man to shoulder high debt as she enters the workplace. Those differences, like others noted in this report, sharpen at the intersection of gender and race. Sixteen percent of Latinas borrow more than $200,000 to attend law school, compared to 12% of Latinos and 4.3% of White men.

Despite these differences, women succeed in law school. Among LSSSE respondents, women’s reported grades exceeded those of men. That was true for women overall, as well as within each racial or ethnic group. As the report’s title suggests, however, women succeed at a cost: less sleep, fewer wellness activities, and more debt.

In this new year, law schools need to look more deeply at the gender differences that color our students’ experience. Those of us who stand at the podium (faculty and administrators) see the equal numbers of men and women sitting before us. We pride ourselves on that equity without probing below the surface. Feminist scholars, including some student authors, have continued to illuminate the gendered nature of legal education. Now LSSSE adds to that literature through the voices of more than 18,000 law students.

, View Comment (1)

The Long Road

December 23rd, 2016 / By

Women now make up a (slight) majority of JD students and that’s a milestone to celebrate. But why did it take us so long to reach this milestone? And will we be able to maintain women’s success throughout law school and their careers? I offer some thoughts here.

, View Comment (1)

Women In The Law

February 23rd, 2016 / By

During three years of law school, I learned the law from only one female professor. But she was a gem: the future Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. After graduation, I had the honor of clerking for then-Judge Ginsburg on the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. The following year, I clerked for an equally admirable woman in law, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor.

Justices Ginsburg and O’Connor faced stiff sexism throughout their careers. Even when they ascended to the Supreme Court, their gender could diminish them. I heard one lawyer address the Court as “your honors and Mrs. O’Connor.” Other advocates confused Ginsburg and O’Connor, despite their different jurisprudence and physical appearance.

Entering the law a generation after these pioneers, I faced much lower barriers–although women of my generation still struggled to prove their value in the workplace and to combine work and family. Today’s women, another generation forward, face a somewhat more hospitable workplace. But I don’t kid myself that the playing field is level: glass ceilings, hidden biases, and workplace stereotypes still hinder women in the legal workplace. Both men and women, meanwhile, struggle to combine a demanding professional career with a supportive home life.

Against that background, I’m delighted to announce that LST Radio is creating a podcast mini-series that will explore the ongoing role of gender in the legal workplace. Episodes will address implicit bias, the leaky pipeline, media images of female lawyers, and much more. Podcasts will include summaries of expert research, interviews with individuals, and round table discussions.

LST has assembled a first-rate team of producers, as well as partners who will distribute the podcasts widely. But to go into production, they need some start-up funds. Diversity Law has made a generous matching pledge: If you donate to the “Women in the Law” podcast project now, your dollars count double. Give $10 and the project receives $20. Give $25 and $50 goes in the pot. I’ve already made my pledge–please add your dollars here.

Let’s make sure we understand the forces that still hold women lawyers back–and work to overcome them.

, No Comments Yet

About Law School Cafe

Cafe Manager & Co-Moderator
Deborah J. Merritt

Cafe Designer & Co-Moderator
Kyle McEntee

ABA Journal Blawg 100 HonoreeLaw School Cafe is a resource for anyone interested in changes in legal education and the legal profession.

Around the Cafe


Enter your email address to receive notifications of new posts by email.


Recent Comments

Recent Posts

Monthly Archives


Have something you think our audience would like to hear about? Interested in writing one or more guest posts? Send an email to the cafe manager at merritt52@gmail.com. We are interested in publishing posts from practitioners, students, faculty, and industry professionals.

Past and Present Guests