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Yale Law Women Report on Faculty-Student Relations

Sometimes starting a conversation is hard work. Over eighty students, working with the Yale Law Women, participated in the production of a report titled, "Yale Law School Faculty and Students Speak about Gender: A Report on Faculty-Student Relations at Yale Law School." (The report is available online.)

The report was released in April, and the discussion it has engendered has already had an influence at the School.

The entire project originated with conversations between Maryana Iskander '03 and Sari Bashi '03. Iskander explains that she has found her law school experience rewarding, but has encountered what she calls "institutional disappointments." Given that informal and relationship-based structures play a large role in life at YLS, Iskander says, "I perceived that to be related to gender."

At the same time, Bashi had begun to wonder about the role of gender at YLS based on the observation that, despite the equal proportion of men and women in recent law school classes, a significant majority of prestigious and competitive jobs (such as Supreme Court clerkships) were still going to men. "In theory we all have the same opportunities," says Bashi, and yet this pattern persists in the profession. "How much is related to what happens in law school?" she wondered.

After talking last spring, as Iskander recalls, they hit on the basic idea of conducting a survey, and thought of it at the time as a "nifty little project." A year later, and after hundreds of hours of work each, Iskander and Bashi were able to present their findings to both faculty and students.

The report is based on three components: in-depth interviews with forty-eight full-time faculty members; survey responses from 263 students; and a monitoring project in which volunteers sat in on twenty-three different classes to record the levels of male and female participation. Although the survey was not designed to be scientifically conclusive, this broad participation ensured that its results were fairly representative.

The faculty interviews were conducted first, which turned out to have felicitous implications for the rest of the project. According to Iskander, faculty became engaged in the project and were anxious to learn what students would say. Bashi says she was "impressed with how candid the faculty were," which helped flesh out the issues for which they wanted student input. On the survey, students were even asked to respond to several direct quotes taken from faculty interviews.

This conversational structure carried into the report itself, which contains recommendations from faculty to students and from students to faculty.

The final report organizes its findings into three categories: classroom dynamics, interactions beyond the classroom, and providing feedback. They deliberately chose to call their results "findings" instead of "conclusions," to reflect the conversational nature of the work. Some of the basic findings were that nearly two-thirds of student respondents believe that men participate more in class; eighty-six percent believe that how a professor runs classroom discussion influences how much men and women participate; and more than two-thirds of students have taken two or fewer classes with a female professor.

Both Iskander and Bashi say that the gender disparities identified by the survey were more pervasive than they had expected. For instance, the survey asked students how comfortable they felt approaching professors outside of class in six different ways (during office hours, by e-mail, by phone, etc.), and in each category, women were less likely to report that they felt comfortable using that method. Women in every class were also less likely to have a mentor-like relationship with a faculty member than their male classmates, and the ways women and men found mentors differed.

Iskander says that some of the gendered findings lead to the conclusion that some significant institutional steps should be taken, such as hiring more female faculty. The Yale Law Women are currently forming five faculty-student working groups that aim to follow up on some of the report's findings.

In other areas, though, the conversation itself is a part of the solution. Some of the findings were the result of differing expectations between faculty and students, such as in policies for returning exams. In other cases the report closed a communication gap. For instance, some faculty reported that they don't perceive a demand for mentoring, while students said they were interested in receiving mentoring but were unsure how to approach faculty members. "The report gives recommendations for improving informal contact with professors," says Bashi.

Iskander says that the report's findings came from encouraging conversation, not hunting down specific problems. "So much work went into letting people speak," she says.

Bashi and Iskander also emphasize that many of the report's findings are not unique to YLS. Students and faculty learn behaviors and norms before they arrive here. The professional market for graduates is split by gender differences. They are proud of the report and how it has been received at YLS: "It demonstrates that this community is willing to discuss what are very real issues here and elsewhere," says Iskander.

You can read the full Yale Law Women report on their website.