Can we talk about this article for a minute? At first I was interested to learn that studies show women in law school are less likely to speak up in class or to form relationships with faculty because that was exactly, but exactly, my experience in law school and I always thought it was a “me” problem, rather than a “women like me” problem. Also, it feels good to put a name on something unpleasant: now I can file my discomfort in law school in part under the label Lingering Effects of Institutional Sexism.
BUT (this is a big one) the reasons the author posits for decreased participation by women are absurd. Women are taught to be quiet and soft spoken from a young age? Maybe once upon a time, but that certainly wasn’t my reality, or that of most women in my age group (who are the women going to law school). We don’t speak in class because our voices are so soft we can’t be heard? Again, not really a problem that exists in reality.
The third point, that assertiveness is seen as bitchy and unattractive, is actually valid in a lot of circumstances. But I don’t think it fits here. Law school encourages assertiveness: most of my female professors were quite assertive and the female students who followed suit appeared to do quite well for themselves. Yes, they (especially the professors), had the corresponding problem being labeled “bitchy” in a way that tough male professors never were, but since law school rewards assertiveness, fear of that label isn’t what deterred me from speaking up. [Neither did the fear of being unattractive. I can guarantee, the ladies I studied with were far more attractive, in almost all respects, than the men.]
The point is, these stereotypes aren’t true of even half the women I went to school with. So what’s going on? I don’t like to criticize an idea without offering one of my own, so here it is:
I think law school — either by design or default — challenges students’ self-esteem.
First, law school pits students against each other. Most students come into law school pretty cocky. Hey, I did well in undergrad and possibly in whatever work I did after undergrad and now I’m smart enough to go to law school. Yay. Then the reality hits that they are competing with a bunch of other equally successful students. Because most schools grade on a curve, there’s no way that all these kids who are used to getting As are going to keep getting As. So by the time first semester grades come out, your ego most likely took a hit.
Second, law school is all about the Socratic Method. The professor picks a student, asks a question, challenges her answer no matter what she says, presses until she’s proven wrong, and then moves on to the next victim. It is terrifying, especially given that the professors who pit their ideas against yours present themselves (often accurately) as titans of knowledge and renown.
Third, law school is hard. It makes you question yourself, especially when your hard work doesn’t appear to pay off in the form of good grades, acknowledgement from professors, or, these days, a job.
My theory is that these challenges to self-esteem hit women harder than men. Not that women naturally have lower self-esteem. Just that when faced with criticism, we are more prone to take it to heart. I’m not going to posit why this is, or even to say it’s true of all women, because it’s obviously not, but I will reference you to this article, which says that women attach greater importance to reflected appraisals than men (while men attach greater importance to social comparisons). I will also say that this explains why I hardly spoke a word during law school, after four years of chattering away in small seminars and big lectures alike as an English major. The liberal arts don’t benefit nearly so much from breaking people down or, more realistically, keeping people out.