“Women take longer to process thoughts before they feel comfortable to say them out loud than men do,” Jensen said, adding that men feel more natural in that kind of classroom atmosphere.
Because of this disparity, the Shatter coalition hopes to encourage changes to the Law School pedagogy.
“If you can show that the Socratic method makes us better lawyers, then fine, but we need to see that data,” said Lena M. Silver, a third-year Law School student and the co-chair of the Shatter the Ceiling coalition.
Harvard Law professor Lani C. Guinier ’71, who has authored several articles on legal pedagogy, said that the problems described by Silver and her group highlight potential issues with legal education today.
“In short, women’s reaction to law school is an important warning sign, but a warning sign that the problem will not go away simply by focusing on helping the women think more like their male counterparts,” Guinier wrote in an email, saying that the faculty should reevaluate their pedagogical techniques.
Others suggested that the pressures of the classroom environment contribute to women not raising their hands as often as men. “Women are more likely to be called ‘gunners’ or ‘teacher’s pets’ if they participate in class,” said Jean N. Ripley, second-year Law School student and co-chair of the Shatter coalition.
In his study, Neufeld, who said he supports the Socratic method, found that women assessed themselves significantly lower than men did, suggesting that different confidence levels may account for the disparity in classroom participation.
“Volunteering is a fairly socially aggressive act,” he said. “You are making all the other students listen to your comment, you think it is unbelievably important and something that no one else has thought of.”
Yet supporters of the Socratic method discount the existence of inherent gender disparities and argue that it is an essential part of the legal education.
“It’s an extreme form of sexism to say that essentially women in general aren’t capable of dealing with the demands of the Socratic method,” said Harvard Law professor Alan M. Dershowitz.
Dershowitz noted that some of the best Socratic students in his classes have been women. “You cannot generalize about men and women when it comes to their ability to be law students or practice law,” he said. “We have to keep inquiring as to why this disparity exists but we have to do it without divulging into stereotypes.”
Dean of the Law School Martha L. Minow pointed to an ongoing debate over the possibility of gendered dimensions of certain forms of argument and reasoning, saying that it “can’t be the case” that “certain types of reasoning are beyond the reach of a group of students.”
And many professors, including Dershowitz, defend the Socratic method as a critical component of the Harvard Law School education.
“The whole practice of law is Socratic,” he said. “You can’t be an effective advocate without mastering the Socratic method.”
Harvard Law professor Jeannie Suk, who graduated from the Law School in 2002, said she agrees that this pedagogy is critical to teaching students how to think.