The University…

Sam Black

The University’s Law School got some good news recently: It was ranked in the top five law schools where women students can excel by professor Linda Hirshman, the director of the Women’s Studies Institute at the Chicago-Kent College of Law. But women in the Law School say there’s still room for improvement.
The study was largely based on the number of women in leadership roles at the Law School. This year, according to Terri Mische, the school’s alumni and communications director, the school’s numbers are good. Women made up 46 percent of new first-year students and 10 of 23 tenured faculty members.
The law council president is a woman, as are the editors in chief of the school’s law journals: The Journal of Law and Inequality, The Journal of Global Trade and The Minnesota Law Review.
The Law School also has several distinguished women alumnae, including Jeanne Coyne and Sandra Gardebring, both members of the Minnesota State Supreme Court.
But the numbers don’t tell the whole story. Making the school’s climate more comfortable for women is an ongoing process.
“I feel that respect issues definitely could be better,” said Stacy Fukuhara, a third-year law student. “The law teaches us to distance ourselves and not be as touchy-feely. It is a very white-male norm, and any other ways of expressing yourself or communication isn’t well accepted.
“If you’re accepted, that’s great, but not everyone is socialized to be aggressive,” Fukuhara said.
However, the school has begun trying to make changes. Law Professor Laura Cooper, the first tenured woman professor in the school, compared the slow progress of women in the legal profession to water eroding stone. “That sort of thing doesn’t change very fast,” she said.
The Law School is taking steps to speed the erosion of male domination in the legal profession, said Cooper.
As the gender gap narrows, the role of the professor is changing. Cooper’s roles as a professor have included trying to increase sensitivity to hiring issues and being a role model for women law students.
Cooper said she tries to be available to help women students meet their needs when they have discrimination complaints or they need to arrange time for their families. When Cooper had her first child, she had to coordinate her due date to coincide with her summer vacation, because the University had no maternity-leave policy at that time.
The ways professors are teaching are actually changing as more women join the faculty, according to Kristi Rudelius-Palmer, the director of the Law School’s Human Rights Council. The rigorous, aggressive teaching method typified by the movie “The Paper Chase,” isn’t “conducive to the traditional way that females approach teaching,” she said.
One of the ways the Law School is trying to effect change is through the Law School Steering Committee on Gender Issues, organized by professor Carol Chomsky under the auspices of the University’s Commission on Women.
The steering committee, which has several working groups, is still in the process of identifying the concerns of women, Chomsky said. Participation is voluntary, and any students, staff or faculty are welcome to be a part of the group.
There are working groups addressing classroom and working climate, safety concerns, family issues, response to sexist, racist, or homophobic incidents, hiring issues, communication and education on gender issues, admissions and curriculum diversity.
Rudelius-Palmer said one exciting aspect about the steering committee is that it bridges the gap between the staff, faculty, students and even some alumni. “It’s really a nice way to try and see that there’s dialogue between the professions,” she said.
Chomsky said she finds it useful to listen to how students talk about what goes on in the classroom. “To hear them talk about what it looks like to them is a tremendous help in my understanding the dynamics of that classroom,” she said.
At the same time, students can benefit from a forum like this, when they hear the professor’s perspective, Chomsky said.
The group is a work in progress, she said. “We are still in the early stages of this group. We want to be inclusive and that takes a lot of time.”
Chomsky said that Law School Dean Thomas Sullivan has been very supportive and encouraging.
Because there has been a lot of gender research at a number of schools, Chomsky said, there is a need to find out what is going on here. “We really need to feel out our local culture and where the problems are and what the problems are, both in the terms of the success of women, and the satisfaction of women.”
The committe’s issues are what Chomsky calls second-generation gender issues. Helping women to get a foot in the door and ending blatant discrimination were first-generation issues. The goal now is to evaluate what the climate is like for women.
Chomsky said she graduated from law school in 1979, and she only had one woman professor. Role models for women lawyers just weren’t there, she said.
Law student Stacy Fukuhara, a member of the National Women’s Law Student organization, said she likes the idea of the Gender Issues Committee. “It’s really neat the way it is set up.”
The committee isn’t just trying to deal with gender issues, she said. It is working to eradicate hierarchies within feminism, addressing issues of race and class as well.
It would have been easy for the committee to say “that’s just a class issue, not a gender issue,” she said, “But they didn’t.”
There are changes Fukuhara would like to see. “I’d like to have more classes specific to women,” Fukuhara said. “There’s a lot more we can do to have special classes (and) include women’s issues into basic first-year classes.”