Closing the Law School Gender Gap

November 12, 2014

Reducing class size and shaking up grading systems could help close the gender gap in professional schools, suggests new research in the Journal of Legal Studies. Authors Daniel Ho and Mark Kelman, both professors of law at Stanford University, say that common professional school pedagogies, such as the Socratic and adversarial methods, may put women at a disadvantage when class sizes are big. In their study, Ho and Kelman analyzed 15,689 grades assigned by 91 instructors to 1,897 students from 2001-12.

During the first part of that time period, from 2001-08, women earned grades that were 0.05 grade-point-average points lower than those for men. But in the data from 2008-12, when Stanford adopted a lower-pressure “honors and pass” grading system, the gender gap disappeared across all classes. That change didn't just reflect "masked" grade differences under the new system, the authors determined through a kind of "shadow" grade analysis of pre-2008 data -- women were really doing better. And in a mandatory class whose size was shrunk and instruction was made more “simulation-intensive,” involving more student interaction and participation, the gender gap was reversed.

Although the original gender gap was relatively small, the authors say, it’s statistically significant when students hit the law job market. For example, they say, a GPA increase from 3.6 to 3.65 is associated with a 7 percent higher chance of landing a federal appellate clerkship. Kelman said that the study refutes a common assumption that performance is predetermined by "fixed" student traits. "To me, the most important finding is the most general one: gender inequality is sensitive to pedagogy," he said via email. "I think this fact is more significant than the particular pedagogical mechanisms that were in play here at Stanford."

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