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The Silence of the Lambs—Why Yale Law Women Are So Quiet

Vivia Chen

April 26, 2012

© Lev Dolgatsjov - Fotolia.comI'm puzzled by Yale Law Women's exhaustive report (almost 100 pages!) on gender dynamics at the elite law school. The upshot is this: Women at Yale aren't speaking up in class, nor are they interacting with faculty members, as often as male students. In other words, boys rule—and that phenomenon could presage the gender disparity that will follow later in their careers.

Surprised? Well, yes and no. I don't doubt that men in almost all situations tend to have more bravado. I've certainly seen it in virtually every job I've ever had. But what's shocking is the extent of this gender gap—especially at a place at Yale, which has had a fairly progressive reputation.

Here's what the Yale report says:

     - Overall, men participate in class at almost a 60 percent rate.

    - Worse, women seem to be getting more quiet compared to ten years ago. In 2002, men spoke 52.2 percent of the time, based on 23 monitored classes. In 2012, men accounted for 71.4 percent of student participation, based on 21 monitored classes.

    - Outside the classroom, men seek out faculty members more, and collaborate earlier and more often with faculty members on research.

These findings are "significant," says Yale law student Fran Faircloth, one of the project's cochairs, because "when men and women leave law school, men continue to dominate. You see that with law firm partners and federal judges." Even in the short term, the effects are noticeable. "If you look at clerkships, the percentage of men who are Supreme Court clerks from Yale is higher than it was 10 years ago," adds Ruth Anne French-Hodson. the project's other cochair.

Though the report didn't say so explicitly, you can't help but feel there's a correlation between being vocal—maybe even cocky—and success.

Curiously, though, the report suggests that most Yale law students—and even some faculty members—disparage those who regularly participate in class. One 3L in the report says: "Students tend to mock other students who participate. Men, who are more used to being physically rather than verbally bullied, don't respond as sensitively to mocking as do women." Faircloth adds, "Often, it may not be the smartest students who speak out."

I don't know how the psychological makeup of Yale law students compares with that of students at other top law schools, but I wonder if the über-cerebral reputation of the school is making everyone overly self-conscious. When you combine that with women's tendency to be guarded, it's no wonder Yale law women are so quiet.

So where did Yale women find their voices? Ironically, they thrived better under the pressure of the Socratic method. "The cold system provided the least gender-disparate result," says the report.

Which brings me to the report's suggestions. Most of them are perfectly reasonable—like urging female students to be more vocal earlier in the semester and advising faculty to be more mindful of who's speaking. But this suggestion puzzled me: Impose more forms of "nonvoluntary classroom participation" to ensure gender equality.

More Socratic method? Seriously? As anyone who's been though law school can tell you, being cold-called by a law professor is not the most pleasant of memories. If the only way we can get women to speak is to subject them to cold calls, then we've got a longer way to go than I had thought.

Come on now, can't we be a little more proactive?


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From childhood men are encouraged, taught, and coached with executive skills (being assertive, team dynamics, handling failure, etc.). These executive leadership skills are needed and rewarded. While the marketplace needs to change to be more inclusive, it's unrealistic to expect most women in a male dominated space to succeed without acquiring many of these skills. These skills are learned through people who already possess these skills (not your run of the mill mentor) or by hiring an executive coach.

I went to Yale Law, and I'm a woman. After getting a 4.0 my first year at a mid-level law school I transferred to Yale and was stunned to find that NOBODY participated in class. Why? There are no grades -- only Honors/Pass/Fail. All that matters there is getting published, not learning law. And I was one of those mocked for participating --people would constantly ask me why I bothered to show up for class, why I was an active participant, why I cared if I got an "Honors" instead of a "Pass." It was infuriating. Most professors came to accept this reality and did nothing to counter it. On one occasion I actually lost my cool and went off on a rant at my fellow students about their refusal to do the reading and participate, which was rendering my $100,000 education far less valuable. Nobody cared. Including the professor. It's an embarrassment and Yale should reinstate REAL grades if they want it to change.

Twenty-five years ago, I was a student at an elite law school, which will remain nameless. Here's what happened the fist week of school in a large lecture hall. I raised my hand in class. I did not get called on. I put my hand down when the prof started talking. I raised my hand again. I did not get called on. I noticed that I was politely putting my hand down every time the prof started talking. I looked around the room. I noticed the men were not putting their hands down when the prof started talking. So I raised my hand again and kept it up when the prof started talking. I was called on. Lesson learned.

Don't agree with the conclusion. The Socratic method is inherently a meritocratic method, and study after study shows that when it is solely based on merit, women do as well if not better.
Law school quality has been going down, even if the Socratic method is not pleasant, it's effective.

While I agree that the "cold-call" Socratic method is not always the most pleasant experience, especially when one is not comfortable or ready to be put on the spot, I do believe it serves a valuable purpose in the training of a lawyer. As a litigator, I can assure you that being able to think on your feet when "cold-called" upon, e.g., by a judge, opposing lawyer or even a witness in front of a jury, is absolutely essential. If one has a strong aversion to this aspect of legal education, it may be worthwhile to rethink law, or at least litigation, as a career. And I suspect that the ability to think on one's feet is a critically important attribute to more than just litigation.

Pleasant or not, the Socratic method has a great many advantages, educational and social. Reports, however, are that in the early years of women at Harvard, in the 1950s, the method was not applied to men and women in the same way. Women were only called on when it was "Ladies' Day."

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The Careerist takes an inside look at how lawyers shape their careers and manage their lives. The blog aims to dissect developments in the profession, provide useful information and advice, and give lawyers a platform to voice their views. The goal is to provide a fresh, provocative take on the state of lawyering.

About Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen, The Careerist's chief blogger, has been covering the business and culture of law firms for a decade. A former corporate lawyer, Chen is fascinated by those who thrive (as well as those who don't) in the legal profession. Her take: Success in the law (and life) doesn't always travel a linear path. If you have topics you'd like to discuss or information to share, contact her: [email protected]

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