Spotlight on Sections: Women in Legal Education

Spotlight on Sections: Section on Women in Legal Education


By Barbra Elenbaas

AALS Sections provide a forum for law school faculty and staff and to connect on issues of shared interest. Each of the 100 AALS sections is focused on a different academic discipline, affinity group, or administrative area. For a full list of AALS sections and how to join, please visit
In this edition of “Spotlight on Sections” AALS spoke with the leadership of the AALS Section on Women in Legal Education.
The Section on Women in Legal Education provides information to its members concerning the integration of women and women’s concerns into the legal profession and the law, promotes the communication of ideas, interests, and activities among members of the Section, and makes recommendations on matters concerning the administration of law schools and on the status of women in legal education.

Rebecca E. Zietlow, University of Toledo College of Law, Chair (Photo courtesy of University of Toledo  College of Law)

Rebecca E. Zietlow, University of Toledo College of Law, Chair (Photo courtesy of University of Toledo College of Law)

Kerri L. Stone, Florida International University College of Law, Chair-Elect (Photo courtesy of Florida International University College of Law)

Kerri L. Stone, Florida International University College of Law, Chair-Elect (Photo courtesy of Florida International University College of Law)

What can you tell us about the membership of the Section on Women in Legal Education?
Rebecca Zietlow: We have very wide-ranging membership. We have people with all different specialties and every different status including deans, short-term contract instructors, legal writing instructors, and clinicians. We have some men in our section—it’s mostly women but we’re open to everybody. It’s very welcoming.
Kerri Stone: We have people in every stage of their career as well. We have people grow up in the section. You’ll find senior professors mentoring newer professors and there’s a real life cycle represented.
The section is a little different from others because it is an affinity group.
RZ: Right, and I believe that we’re one of the first ones to be formed. When the section started, there were hardly any women in legal education. The folks who were involved in founding the group tell stories about all fitting around one table at the Annual Meeting.
Being a supportive group for women in legal education—including mentorship—was the reason we formed to begin with and we’ve always played that role.
KS: In the beginning of the section, women were a minority in the legal academy—maybe one or two on a faculty. So the fact that they could all get together at these conferences was special and a big deal. Now, you’ve got these senior women who have had illustrious careers (and are still having them) and can still remember the days when they were the only woman on their faculty. Now they’re passing on the stories and making sure that even though we’re in an academy in which women are better represented, that we don’t forget the trajectory, and that we still understand there is this affinity out there and this mentoring is out there for us—and we appreciate it.
RZ: One of the things we’ve been working on is an oral history project. We’re lucky enough that a lot of the founders of the section are still in the profession so we’re working on making sure we gather that history.
KS: That effort is being spearheaded by Marie Failinger at Mitchell Hamline School of Law. It’s going to be an incredibly valuable resource to have and will institutionalize us.
You’ve been conducting this oral history project for a few years.
RZ: Yes, I think three years. Marie’s been doing most of the interviews, but could use some help. We’d like to get more people involved.
KS: Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was one of the first to be interviewed.
Women in Legal Education Awards
What improvements have you seen as a direct or indirect result of the work of this section?
RZ: I’ve been teaching for 20 years now, and from the beginning, I’ve always gone to the section’s breakfast or lunch at the Annual Meeting. I think there’s a lot of women who made it a point to do that no matter what else they were doing at the meeting. We’ve done a lot of programming—a number of midyear meetings, programming at the Annual Meeting, including a daylong program on women in poverty about 10 years ago. We’ve always tried to highlight, broadly, issues involving women and the law.
A couple of years ago we had a well-attended program about the situation of women in the legal profession that began with a conversation on our listserv about podiums. Someone had a discussion with her colleagues about how high the podium should be in the classroom, which led to talking about the architecture of the classroom (designed for taller people, which is usually to say men), and we went from there. People were so engaged and so heartfelt that we turned it into a program. And it was completely packed.
I think our section has done a great job of highlighting issues of gender in legal education. We also talk about race and other identity issues as well. We focus mainly on identity as opposed to any particular area of study, though I would say there are certainly a lot of people in our section who are engaged in feminist legal theory.
KS: I wasn’t there at the beginning of the section, but the bits of folklore I’ve heard members say is that the state of the law, the state of society, and the state of women in the academy were different. In the earlier years, the things women got together to discuss and help each other with were issues of being told, by colleagues or senior people at their schools, that they didn’t belong there.
Now we talk about more modern issues that are facing women. We had a big discussion about which schools were offering paid maternity leave and what that meant, and which schools weren’t giving it and how that would affect hiring and the ability to attract and retain talented women.
The issues of the day and the state of the laws behind us change. The state of society and the composition of the American workplace in general change. It’s nice to see that women are better represented in the academy and aren’t dealing with the same type of hostility that they once were, but there are still issues that need to be discussed. There’s not always a place or opportunity to do that, but this section has provided much-needed support and networking.
The section confers the Ruth Bader Ginsburg Lifetime Achievement Award to an outstanding legal educator each year. What can you tell us about the award and some of the women who have won the honor? 
RZ: Four years ago, the section started giving out a lifetime achievement award. The first recipient was Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who is the award’s namesake. Other recipients include Catharine MacKinnon (University of Michigan), Marina Angel (Temple University) and Herma Hill Kay (University of California, Berkeley). The luncheon at which we give the award has become a big event, especially the year we gave it to Herma Hill Kay—we combined it with an interview with Ruth Bader Ginsburg because she was not able to attend the year we gave her the award.
KS: My understanding of how it began was that there were a handful of women who were very accomplished and had given tirelessly of themselves in terms of mentoring, networking, and bringing women together consistently over the years at these conferences. People wanted a way to show their appreciation and honor them, to reflect all they had done for the section and its membership.
RZ: That’s the heart of it. And while they’re still around, we thought we’d like to honor them.
The section is in a special place, having so many of those founding members still here and active.
RZ: Exactly. That’s what we’re all about as a section. Bringing people in and giving back a bit to recognize the people who helped us.
What improvements to law school curricula have come out of the work of the section?
RZ: That’s where our programming comes in–we’re highlighting the work of women in different areas of the law. Not in specific subject matter, but, for example, we had the daylong program on women in poverty. We’ve had programs on work and women. We’re trying to bring women into the study of the law, too. We also have programming on women in the legal profession, especially highlighting women who are not paid as much and/or who don’t have as much job security, and the fact that this is the case.
What would you say are the most important conversations happening right now regarding women in legal education?
RZ: I think one is that we are now a much larger percentage of faculty. There are even a few faculties that are majority women. But of the women, there are many who are still being paid less and have less job security. I think equity in the workplace in general is an important conversation and treating legal writers and clinicians equitably is an issue in the legal profession.
KS: At this stage of the game, it’s about so much more than just getting lip service. It’s more than saying okay, now our faculty is comprised of a certain percentage of women. It’s about the leadership understanding some of the issues that come up and being able to address them. What do you do, for example, when you have to develop a maternity leave policy and your school has never had one before? What do you do when a female professor is getting very gendered comments on her evaluations—how do you read those evaluations? How do you interpret student perceptions in a way that’s fair to her? What are the dynamics of faculty meetings? Do women feel comfortable speaking up? Are they heard? Do all professors understand how to get their female students to participate at the same rate as male students?
These are subtler issues that haven’t historically been tremendously touched upon. I think now is the time for those conversations to be happening, and I hear them happening all over the country.
RZ: Another important issue is the question of how to talk about gender issues and race issues in the classroom, for example, when teaching rape, or sex equality in Constitutional Law. We talk about the trigger warning debate that’s all over campuses. I think that’s especially relevant in the legal profession because we’re not just talking about those issues. We’re talking about how the law should deal with those issues.
Touching upon this, our 2017 Annual Meeting program will be “Cultivating Empathy.”
Can you tell me more about your programs at the 2017 Annual Meeting?
KS: To our section’s credit, the speakers who were chosen for “Cultivating Empathy” are fantastic speakers. If you take a look at their backgrounds and their work, you’ll see that we have all viewpoints represented, which I think is important to any discussion. It’s going to be a robust conversation and not a flat analysis.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg presents the Section’s Lifetime Achievement Award to Herma Hill Kay at the 2015 AALS Annual Meeting.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg presents the Section’s Lifetime Achievement Award to Herma Hill Kay at the 2015 AALS Annual Meeting.

RZ: The section is especially attuned to issues of diversity. Our genesis having been diversity, we’re concerned with the kind of issues that Kerri mentioned—viewpoints, but also gender and racial diversity on our panels, school diversity, status diversity, experience diversity.
KS: There is no one profile of a member of our section. If there were, we’d be doing something wrong. So we’re going to have speakers talking about the need for trigger warnings or increased sensitivity, and other speakers who will say “you know what, these are difficult subjects and lawyers have to deal with difficult things. To give an opt-out is not to give everyone the same level of education.” It’s a complex issue and we’re going to have a complex discussion about it.
RZ: The other program we’re doing is a speed mentoring program. That goes back to the crucial role our section has as being a place to network.
How did you choose that topic? Aspects of it seem to have been so present in the popular consciousness lately—campus sexual assault particularly, and trigger warnings.
RZ: We chose it both as a response to some members and it came out of a great conference call where we just brainstormed and came up with it. We work well together.
KS: If you look at our panel—one of the speakers is a friend of mine that I suggested, and he blogs a lot about this topic. He’s wonderful and pro-diversity. He’s raised this question a lot: there are things that have actually happened that we need to be able to talk about in a law classroom. We need to prep our students to handle them. If they can’t handle talking about them, we’re producing some lawyers that are less capable than others, and that’s not fair to anybody. So in a profession like this, we have a pedagogical need to discuss real-world events.
How do your section members interact and collaborate outside of the AALS Annual Meeting?
RZ: It starts with the annual Faculty Recruitment Conference. We rent a suite where candidates can come and spend time when they’re at the conference. Then we have a breakfast at the New Law Teachers Workshop and at the Clinical Conference where speakers come and give advice. We try to get people who have been teaching for a few years so they can relate to the new folks.
KS: We utilize our listserv a lot. And we have mentoring events where we pair people up. A lot of that [mentorship] happens informally, anyway. At some of the other conferences, we used to do “Marina dinners,” where Marina Angel would gather all the women from the section (and some new ones to invite in) at whatever conference we were attending. She’d say it’s not formal, it’s not sanctioned, but let’s get together, talk, and check in.
RZ: The section is quite active with many people involved on committees.
KS: I showed up to an Annual Meeting one year and I was pregnant. A lady came up to me and said “Oh, back in the day I was so afraid to tell my dean I was pregnant!” Another person came up to me and said “Do you want to co-author an article with me about x, y, and z?” There were so many hands extended and opportunities and shared experiences. Someone else was like “Does your back hurt? I have a great trick for that!” Every level of support. And I just showed up, I didn’t even say anything! That tells you a lot about our outreach.
Do you have a formal mentorship program, or does it just happen organically?
RZ: At least every other year we have some sort of mentoring activity at the Annual Meeting. Two years ago we had a networking program at our business meeting which a lot of people came to that was focusing on women deans. We try to do networking and mentoring as part of our programming regularly.
KS: Because if you are a woman and you’re considering applying for a deanship at your school, or applying to be the dean at your school, more often than not there aren’t women sitting where you want to sit. Sometimes there are and you’re lucky, and they may be willing to talk to you. But when you show up at our meeting, you can be surrounded by similarly-situated women who have done exactly what you want to do. And they can talk to you about the ins and outs of doing it as a woman.
How does your section support the scholarship of your members?
RZ: We try to reach out to people at every level, and to be inclusive in our programming. We sometimes have calls for papers for our conferences. I think that by organizing those daylong and other meetings, we’re giving a lot of opportunities to scholars to come, present their papers, and interact with each other.
KS: I’ve asked some members of the section to read my work and no one has ever said no. A lot of times I get unsolicited offers, people saying “Oh that’s so interesting, I’d be happy to take a look at that for you.” Those kind of offers started the minute I walked through the doors as an assistant professor. Again, this is an incredible resource.
What do you think makes people in your section so willing to do that? What are you doing right in your section that other sections might emulate?
RZ: The section exists to support to each other. I think encouraging people who are less senior to get actively involved in the section is a good thing to do. When you do panels, don’t just invite the top names in the field. Invite people who are newer or who teach at schools that aren’t in the top 20.
KS: Our ethos has always been to cultivate gratitude.
RZ: It’s a pay it forward thing.
KS: Many of the women in our section will tell you that they have been victims of discrimination in some form or another. Some will tell you that at some point in their career they were sexually harassed. Others will tell you it was more implicit—they didn’t give me this chance, but maybe they would have if they didn’t see me in whatever way. People in the section understand, there’s a common ground there.
And for everyone who can tell you they’ve been discriminated against, there’s someone who will say they’ve been helped along the way by other women—someone gave me advice, someone listened while I spoke, someone represented me well in a case. So there’s a sense of gratitude and of paying it forward. Going all the way back to those first women who were pioneers on faculties, who dealt with hostilities and indignities that we would never even dream we would experience today. We all stand on their shoulders. There’s a tremendous sense of “I want to pay this forward; I want to give back.” We have a great job, and it’s easy to take for granted. It is important to stay grateful.
What is your vision for the section, this year and in the years to come? What new initiatives would you like to see as part of the section? 
RZ: First thing is to keep doing all the things we’re already doing. Second, we’ll work to bolster our oral history project and perhaps have some programming around that. I would also like to see us reactivate our formal mentorship program.
KS: For me, I’d like to see us continuing to recruit the most junior people as they come in so they don’t have to waste time feeling alienated or confused.
I’d like to see us maintain our reputation for every kind of diversity. There’s no one definition of feminism—everyone should feel welcome and comfortable. I would like to see us be the hosts of robust, provocative conversations and debates. Sometimes it’s too easy to talk about something because everyone will be on the same side, and the conversation is flat and monolithic. I think what we’re known for is putting it all out there. We look beneath the surface, and our discussions are intelligent and nuanced and provocative. People leave with a lot to think about, and I’m proud that we preside over conversations like that at conferences. We pick great topics and bring in great speakers and cover all viewpoints.
This section has the largest membership and we represent a lot of people. I hope we continue to do that to our utmost ability by making everyone feel welcome and keeping the level of things high.
I hope we help our members not only in their own careers—which we’re doing every step of the way through promotion, through their writing, through giving advice about their service as we’ve always done—but also help them become better teachers. I think we’re taking great strides toward that this year with our topics, because we’re not just women. We teach women. And we teach men who are going to interact with women every day. I think constantly striving to bring this awareness to our own careers and the careers of our students is central to what we’re doing.
I hope, one day, people think of our committee and the work we did, not only formally but also informally, and they look back on us the way Rebecca and I think about the women who brought us in and mentored us and helped us. I will never forget them when I think about my career. When I think about everything I’ve done and those who helped me and enabled it, I have a tremendous amount of gratitude. I hope one day there will be people who think about us as a group or individually and say “That was really helpful. I’m glad they did that. They brought me in, they introduced me to all these people, and I didn’t have to wonder, I didn’t have to worry. Things were brought to me and I’m grateful for that.”
I hope that one day people look at us in even close to the same way we look at the more senior women who did that for us. I would like to think that we’ve supported someone’s career.