“We haven’t created a situation in which women are doing as well as we’d like them to be,” Law school professor Christine Desan said. “Part of that is surely societal, both social and political.”
But the gender grade disparity is not the same at other law schools, according to visiting professor Laura Rosenbury.
“It’s interesting because I’ve been teaching at Washington University in St. Louis, and we don’t have this problem,” said Rosenbury in a video released by the Shatter coalition. “In fact, women outperform their male colleagues both in terms of grades and in terms of law review competition. And so what makes Harvard different?”
Faculty and students alike have struggled to find an answer.
Minow said there is “unequivocally” no difference in undergraduate grades or the LSAT scores of men and women coming into Harvard Law.
“They are at some level puzzling, because the grading in the big classes are completely anonymous,” Tushnet said. “And yet there must be something about the style of a writing or arguing that the faculty prefers that tilts in favor of men.”
Others said they believe that levels of confidence and self-perception may play a role.
“The main argument for this one is the stereotype threat,” Neufeld said. “If you are a high school girl who’s taking a math class, and there’s a general perception that women do worse, you, no matter what your inherent ability, are going to be more anxious because you don’t want to do poorly and reflect that stereotype, and you will end up doing worse because you can’t relax and focus.”
While the cause of these issues remains unknown, in many ways the extent of the problem is also uncertain.
No new grade data has been released since the administration changed the grading system from the standard letter grades to an honors, pass/fail system. A key goal of the Shatter coalition has been access to that data, but Minow has declined to share it.
“We don’t need to have a study, we need to work on making this better,” Minow said. “Do I think there are issues about whether or not Harvard Law School or any law school is conducive to learning for any student? Yes. Might there be gendered dimensions? Possibly. You don’t have to prove anything to me; I’m already committed to addressing these issues, as is the faculty.”
Desan said that as long as she and her colleagues continue to grade, they must take responsibility for the marks they give.
“If those grades suggest that there may be a problem with our teaching or our testing, then we should try to figure out what that problem is,” she said. “We have data that we haven’t explored yet, and I think it’s time that we explored it.”
While Minow said she hopes to diminish the role of grades in the community, some students have raised concerns that beyond the Harvard Law campus, grades remain critical to success.
“I think that potentially a barrier Dean Minow has to face in deemphasizing the prestige of those things is that the legal profession and the academic world still values them,” President of the Student Representative Board Lisa M. Lana said.
—Staff writer Dev A. Patel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @dev_a_patel.