Just 20 percent of U.S. senators are female. Women make up a mere 21.6 percent of the lawyers who serve as general counsels to Fortune 500 companies. Only three of the nine Supreme Court Justices are women.
But these figures are still higher than the proportion of women within the ranks of the Harvard Law School faculty.
At Elizabeth Warren and Elena Kagan’s former place of work, women constitute fewer than a fifth of all professors and assistant professors of law—a disparity that Harvard Law School Dean Martha L. Minow called “absolutely inadequate.” With only 17 women among 92 tenure-track faculty members, according to the Law School’s online directory as of May 6, the gender imbalance of Harvard Law School’s faculty is comparable to that of other elite law schools, yet still among the most severe of the approximately 200 law schools nationwide.
Concerns about gender inequality have spread throughout campus as a new student-run coalition called Shatter the Ceiling draws hundreds of community members together to address these issues, faculty members pursue research on gender disparities, and the administration pushes for new strategies to level the playing field. Amidst this growing movement, some have raised questions about the impact of gender inequality within the ranks of the faculty, in the classroom, in student organizations, and in life after Law School.
Among their top concerns is the small proportion of women on the faculty, an issue they say is rooted in the Law School’s history and today impacts hiring decisions, faculty conversations, and topics of intellectual inquiry.
“It’s an issue that matters to me, an issue that matters to the Law School, and an issue that matters to the profession,” Minow said.
BURDENED BY THE PAST
Portraits of tenured professors arranged in chronological order line a wing of the Law School’s new student center, looking down on students as they walk to class each day. But students cannot see a woman’s photograph until they pass the 1972 mark, and can only count a handful more in the next few decades.
More than 20 years after female students first stepped foot on campus, the Law School in 1972 granted tenure to its first female faculty member, Elisabeth A. Owens. But she did not attend faculty meetings, and her appointment “was widely regarded as not genuine,” according to Daniel R. Coquillette, a visiting professor and the former dean of Boston College Law School.
Coquillette is currently working on a history of Harvard Law School that will devote a significant section to the history of gender at the school. He said that the Law School’s progress on gender issues came relatively late, after other law schools across the country had already taken significant steps towards welcoming women.
“The appointment of women to the tenured faculty is so recent that many of the pioneer women are still right there as active faculty members,” Coquillette said, referring particularly to Law School professors Martha A. Field ’65 and Elizabeth Bartholet ’62, two of the first women to successfully complete the tenure process.
Field recounted that when she first joined the faculty as a tenured professor in 1979, the Law School had “such a terrible reputation” among women in the field.
“It used to be a nice male club,” she said. “It really did sort of mess up the boys’ club when women came on.”
Field said that in the early years, the hiring of female faculty members was slowed by concerns about tilting the political direction of the school leftward.