According to the Association of American Law Schools Statistical Report on Law School Faculty for 2002-2003, fully tenured female law professors make up 25.2 percent of law faculties nationwide and 34.2 percent of the total law faculty count. That's certainly progress from the 13 percent of female law school professors in 1991. But with that rate of growth — roughly 1 percent a year — it will take another 25 years for women to reach the 50-percent mark.The article then discusses possible explanations for the low status of women within legal academia: the time demands required to earn tenure; the importance of the informal "old boys' network," which tends to exclude women; the likelihood that women are more caring than men, and therefore spent more time developing personal relationships with their students that results in less time for scholarship; discrimination against women in assigning committee work; and more.
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Studies also show that women are less likely than men to receive the coveted leadership positions. For instance, women hold 16 percent of all dean positions in the country, according to a study by the American Bar Association's Commission on Women in the Profession. The dean positions matter, observers say, because deans influence hirings and promotions.
"It's safe to say that there's been considerable progress, but 20 percent is not 50 percent," says Joan Williams, a law professor and director of the Program on WorkLife Law at American University's Washington College of Law.
Lisa Lerman, a Catholic University law professor, agrees. "Things have improved in general, but it really depends on the school."
Why do women continue to lag behind?
For the most part, the status of women law professors today merely reflects the "glass ceiling" for women in many professions. The reasons for its persistence are less clear: overt discrimination is either nonexistent or hard to prove. Nevertheless, a variety of factors that arise during the hiring or promotion process — including ones based on the personal choices of the applicants themselves — appears to cause a woman's career inertia at all levels of law schools.
Unfortunately, the article overlooks a rather significant aspect of its statistical evidence. The statistics offered in the article describes the present percentages of male vs. female faculty members who are full professors or on faculties as a whole, instead of the gender ratios of recently-hired or recently-tenured law professors. This is important because most faculties were all-male not long ago; if a law school hires 50% women starting at a particular point, and women are promoted at the same rate as men, it will take a few decades before the older male faculty members retire and the overall ratio approaches 50%. Deans tend to be more senior, too, so you would expect those numbers to lag the most.
I don't know of any statistics on the rate of tenure and promotion among law professors broken down by gender. The statistics on the entry-level tenure-track hiring process suggest significant gender equality, however. Over the last dozen years, the new professors at the tenure-track Assistant Professor and Associate Professor rank were 45.6% women, and 54.4% men. (See here, Table 8B) Further, the AALS statistics on success rates suggest that female candidates may actually have an easier time getting a law teaching job than male candidates do. From the period of 1991 to 2003, men who registered with the AALS found a teaching job 11.3% of the time, while women who registered with the AALS found a teaching job 13.9% of the time.
This is particularly notable given the very troubling evidence that women tend to underperform as compared to men on several of the key criteria typically used to select faculty candidates. At elite law schools that tend to produce the most future professors, the evidence suggests that female students tend on average to get lower grades, tend to be underrepresented among those on law review at many schools, and also tend to be less likely to obtain prestigious clerkships. Despite this disadvantage, women candidates appear to find more success on the law teaching market than men. There are lots of possible explanations for this — perhaps men are more likely to try to get a teaching job even if they are not likely to be competitive — but it is consistent with the anecdotal evidence that most law school faculties consider it a "plus" when a faculty candidate is a woman.
Is there a glass ceiling at tenure and promotion for female candidates? I don't know of any statistics on this question. As Brian Leiter has noted, law schools tenure a very high percentage of tenure-track professors; tenure is considered relatively easy to obtain. Given this, I find it a bit less likely than otherwise that the tenure hurdle would generate significant gender biases. I don't want to oversimplify a complicated issue. Law schools tend to hire and promote candidates who are willing and able to devote countless hours to study and writing, and on balance, for a number of reasons, this remains more socially acceptable for men than for women. The gender disparities among law students are real and very troubling. Still, my very tentative sense is that the slow pace of change in the gender ratios of law professors is due primarily to the long careers of professors more than any glass ceiling.