Stanford Research Suggests Ways To Close The Gender Gap In Law Schools


Publish Date:
November 11, 2014
Stanford Report
Related Person(s):


A study by Professors Mark Kelman and Daniel Ho on ways to reduce the gender gap in professional schools is highligted in this Stanford Report article by Clifton Smith. 

Reducing class sizes and reforming grading systems may help reduce the gender gap in professional school settings, according to a new Stanford study.

“Our findings suggest that class size and pedagogical policy have a considerable role to play in addressing gender gaps in professional school,” wrote Stanford law Professors Daniel Ho and Mark Kelman in a research article in the Journal of Legal Studies.

As Kelman, also the vice dean at Stanford Law School, said, “Randomization and mandatory classes mean that we can cleanly study the effects of class size, as self-selection is not an issue.”

As Kelman and Ho pointed out, gender gaps in test scores and grades have been documented across a range of educational settings – in science, collegiate outcomes, and law and business schools. Research shows that Socratic and adversarial teaching styles – common to traditional law school instruction – may pose disadvantages for female students, who tend to participate less frequently than males in larger classes. Studies also have found that women fare as well or better than male counterparts when class sizes are smaller.

Kelman said, “Smaller classes eliminated the gender gap that existed in large courses from 2001-08, and the gap disappeared after 2008 when we moved to a less-pressured honors/pass grading system from numerical grades, and actually is reversed in small simulation-based classes.”

Ho said, “Our best sense, from collecting information from instructors, syllabi, final exams and course evaluations, is that small classes may facilitate certain forms of pedagogy that re-engage the broader student body.”

“The smallest, simulation-intensive class led women to outperform men. These results are consistent with evidence from physics courses suggesting that pedagogy via interactive engagement exercises reduces gender differences,” said Ho.

Though the results provide fodder for how professional schools can close gender gaps, much more work remains to be done to better understand exactly how class size and pedagogy affect students in different ways, Kelman noted.

“I do think schools should look at these results and experiment with whatever forms of small-group, problem-focused pedagogy that they are able to make available and study whether they get the sorts of effects we have gotten from small sections and simulation-based courses,” he said.

Kelman said that the study also refutes a common assumption that performance is predetermined by “fixed” student traits.

“Some naïve reactions are that if women get poorer grades at law school, women must be less capable,” he said.

Kelman added, “I think it's surprising to many – and perhaps a confirmation of a more optimistic view that I have – that much of the inequality we observe in the world is mutable, and that the structures that we sometimes take for granted may work to the advantage of some and the disadvantage of others.”

Read More