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It is ladies day at Harvard Law School, but not in the sense that the event was traditionally celebrated. In the l950s and 1960s, some of the school’s most prominent professors declined to acknowledge female students’ presence except on days specifically designated for their participation, featuring cases involving sexually humiliating incidents and feminine pursuits such as needlework. On July 1, Harvard Law School celebrated its 50th anniversary of women’s admission with the appointment of Elena Kagan as its first woman dean. While this milestone shows how far Harvard and the profession overall have come, the fact that it took a half-century, and that many law schools still have never chosen a woman dean, reflects progress yet to be made. That point was brought home at the recent conference, Taking Stock: Women of All Colors in Law School, jointly sponsored by the Association of American Law Schools and the American Bar Associations’s Commission on Women in the Profession and the Section of Legal Education. The conference also marked a milestone: For the first time, about half of entering law classes are women, and a quarter of those are women of color. But as the conference papers also revealed, full equality is an aspiration, not an achievement. In law, as in life, women — particularly of color — remain underrepresented in the positions of greatest status, reward and influence. Only 23 percent of full professors and 13 percent of law school deans are female, and only 4 percent of full professors and 1 percent of deans are women of color. At many institutions, women faculty are disproportionately clustered in the least-influential and least-secure academic roles (e.g., nontenure-track clinicians and writing instructors). The climate for female professors, students and staff leaves much to be desired. Yet the story emerging in most mainstream portrayals of contemporary legal education is that the “woman problem” has been solved. Women’s underrepresentation in key roles is often attributed to their different choices and capabilities. Ironically, with the success of the women’s movement, this generation feels little need to advance its agenda; partial progress has become an obstacle to further change. Still, a retrospective glance suggests grounds for optimism. For most of this nation’s history, both formal policies and informal norms assumed that law as a profession was unfit for women and women unfit for the law. As a Wisconsin Supreme Court justice put it, the “peculiar qualities of womanhood” were ill-suited for “forensic strife.” Law schools had more pragmatic concerns, such as distracted male students and opportunities for unchaperoned interchanges in the library. As Judith Hope Richards noted in Pinstripes and Pearls, Harvard faculty did not want to squander scarce places on female students who would not have the same opportunities as male competitors to make full use of their legal training; discrimination against women became a rationale for perpetuating it. When other explanations fell short, there was a final, seemingly insurmountable problem: a lack of women’s lavatories. Most institutions have managed to solve the “potty problem,” but other challenges remain. Female students and faculty are often subject to the same double standards and double binds that women encounter in other professional settings. Their competence is subject to heightened scrutiny and they risk criticism for being too assertive or not assertive enough. Multiple studies document unconscious bias in scholarly evaluations and student course evaluations. Even explicit comments like “she’s too liberated for me” are still depressingly common. Still more frequent are the assessments that reflect such biases but are not candid in expressing them. Women also assume a disproportionate share of both family obligations and academic “housekeeping” work such as committee assignments and counseling students, all of which interfere with their scholarly research. Women are disproportionately likely to remain silent in the classroom, and issues of race, gender and sexual orientation are marginal in core curricula. Most institutions continue to experience racist, sexist and homophobic incidents. The trailer for Hollywood’s newest account of women lawyers, “Legally Blonde II”, announces that its heroine is “on a mission to change the law … and look good doing it.” If so, let us hope that some of her viewers follow suit, and focus attention on law schools as well as the law. Clearly, law schools still have a way to go before women reach equity in practice as well as principle. Deborah L. Rhode is the Ernest W. McFarland Professor of Law at Stanford Law School and an NLJ columnist.

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