Even in Law School, Boys Differ from Girls

Women increasingly comprise close to 50 percent or more of all students in law and medical schools, a trend over which the news media fawn as holding promise of gender equality in America. Yet a study by sociologists at Tulane University suggests that differences in the motivations, aspirations, and even academic performance of men and women in law school—not the alleged constraints of a sexist society—may frustrate the feminist dream.

The researchers conducted two sets of interviews with 29 first-year law students attending a “top tier” law school in the South. In the first set of interviews, conducted the beginning of the first semester in the fall of 2002, the researchers discovered that relative to women, men appeared more motivated, citing more and different reasons for attending law school: having a greater interest in law; having a father who was a lawyer (only one woman did), and possessing “debating skills” (no women mentioned this reason). Men also aspired to more demanding career goals, being more apt to see themselves working in the private sector, including law firms. Moreover, all the men who were planning to be in firms anticipated becoming a partner within ten years; none of the women expressed this goal.

Perhaps most revealing, men were more likely to envision their future jobs as fitting into their plans to marry and have a family. Women were more likely to see their careers as competing with their family aspirations, some even acknowledging the difficulty of having both or the inevitability of following a “mommy track” with a scaled-back career or part-time work.

The follow-up interviews, conducted in the beginning of the second semester in early 2003, confirmed these basic sex differences but also revealed that the women had lowered their career expectations even more. According to the researchers, the students’ receipt of their first semester grades account for this change. Even as the coeds had earned higher undergraduate grade-point averages than the men, and had expressed working harder in law school than in college, the men outperformed them in first-semester grades. The academic gap between the two sexes, the authors lamented, would simply reinforce gender differences in gaining internships and future jobs.

While the study is limited by the tiny size and anecdotal nature of the sample, its findings nonetheless confirm that sex differences continue to pop up, even in an elite profession that has sought to suppress them.

(Catherine Carroll and April Brayfield, “Lingering Nuances: Gender Career Motivations and Aspirations of First-Year Law Students,” Sociological Spectrum 27 [2007]: 225–55.)