July 10, 2013

Academia: “Learning” to Advance in Legal Education

G.M. Filisko

Tamar Frankel started at the bottom in academia—literally.

“My first office was in the basement of the library,” says the first woman to receive tenure at Boston University School of Law, where she’s taught since 1968. “But I liked it because I was writing a treatise and needed a lot of books, and the students came to see me nonetheless. I understand a strong secretary of the dean came and said, ‘Get her out of there!’ I was then told my office would be upstairs.”

Frankel also had a child that same year. “The dean knew, but very few, if any, others realized it,” recalls the former lieutenant in the Israeli Air Force. “I lived very near the university, so I even nursed [my son] and went back to teach and write.

“It was clear my colleagues didn’t have any model of a professional woman,” she continues. “The [only] model they had was their wives. Some worried that when I came into the room, I’d demand that they stand up, which wouldn’t have occurred to me in a million years. Or if they said ‘Damn!’ I’d be offended. But coming from the Middle East, I heard cuss [words] they never would have [used].”

From Professor to Dean

Herma Hill Kay was nearly as alone when she showed up at the University of California Berkeley School of Law in 1960. The second woman to teach there learned it wasn’t easy to find male mentors. “For many, their wives were worried the women would steal them away, and sometimes they did,” says Kay, who in 1992 became the school’s first female dean. “You had to be both not overly aggressive and not overly shy. It was a hard line to walk.”

Moreover, only a sliver of the student body was women. “I thought there were women all over the place,” Kay says. “But there were virtually no women students. It was about 2 percent. One of the first classes I taught, California marital and community property, had 75 students, and only one was a woman.”

Courses on gender issues? Career killers, a dean told Deborah Rhode, a professor at Stanford University Law School in Palo Alto, California, who was one of two women on the faculty of 36 men in 1979. “I wanted to teach a course on gender issues, and the dean was horrified and said it would type me as a woman. My response was that probably wouldn’t come as a surprise to my colleagues. But I’d missed the point, which was credibility. To him, I needed to teach a real course. He suggested negotiable instruments. Times change, and so do deans. I now teach gender law and public policy. Enormous progress has been made.”

Indeed. According to the most recent data available from the Association of American Law Schools, in 2008–2009, women comprised 37 percent of law school faculty. Overt prejudice is rare today, Rhode says. “Also, I think the number of women in leadership roles throughout the profession is striking, and I’m not just talking about academia, though it’s no longer unusual to have a woman dean. We’ve now had two here at Stanford.”

Underrepresented at the Top

However, Rhode says there’s no time for complacency. “Women are still overrepresented at the bottom and underrepresented at the top of academic pecking orders,” she points out. “There are fewer women as full professors and law school deans and more women as writing instructors and in supportive administrative roles. We haven’t fully solved the gap at leadership levels yet.”

Compensation and women’s access to distinguished chairs or powerful assignments also remain a challenge, says Elizabeth Schneider, a professor at Brooklyn Law School in New York City. However, at some schools, there are still barriers to even getting a foot in the door. “Hiring is still an issue at some schools,” says Schneider. “I have quite a number of women on my faculty on the tenure track and in tenured positions, but that’s not true at all law schools around the country, and there are more considerable hurdles for women of color.”

Kay wants to see women in academia continue to move forward. But she’s also got her eyes on another prize—electing the first woman president, ideally one who’s served on the ABA Commission on Women in the Profession.

G.M. Filisko

G.M. Filisko is a lawyer and an award-winning, Chicago-based freelance journalist who covers legal, real estate, business, and personal finance topics for such publications as the ABA Journal, Consumers Digest, REALTOR Magazine, AARP.com, and Bankrate.com.