Unequal Profession: Addressing Challenges in Diversity and Inclusivity Among Law Faculty
To learn more about diversity among law faculty, I recently sat down with my colleague Meera E. Deo, JD, PhD, an interdisciplinary scholar whose research interests and expertise includes trends in legal education, institutional diversity, and affirmative action. Her most recent work is her first book, Unequal Profession: Race and Gender in Legal Academia, published earlier this year by Stanford University Press. The book takes an unflinching look at a profession that, despite progress towards diversity and inclusivity, continues to fall short in many areas, including the legal academy. With women of color accounting for only 7% of law professors in the U.S., many of their qualitative experiences are unique.
Deo is professor of law at Thomas Jefferson School of Law, visiting professor at UC Davis School of Law (2018-2020), and director of the Law School Survey of Student Engagement (LSSSE) located at Indiana University. Her book is based on extensive empirical research, including online surveys as well as in-person interviews with 93 law faculty who are diverse by race, gender, tenure status, school selectivity, region, leadership position, and more.
What follows are excerpts from our conversation.
Testy: Thank you for talking today, Meera. After reviewing your research, where do you think we are in terms of reducing bias while increasing inclusivity among law faculty?
Deo: The numbers are better, but the qualitative experience of underrepresented law faculty hasn’t improved much. The culture of law schools favors white, straight, non-immigrant, able-bodied men. Those who deviate are not part of the norm, which creates barriers that decrease the likelihood of success.
Testy: We both appreciate the significance of intersectionality; how did you see these issues at work in your research?
Deo: Someone who identifies as African American may also identify as a woman, or mother, or lesbian, or working class. If there were no hierarchies based on these identities, intersectionality would simply highlight differences. But each of those characteristics, when devalued, provides an opportunity for oppression.
Intersectionality is why a law professor who is a woman of color tends to have a much different experience than one who is a man of color or a white woman or a white man. Looking at case law, legal education has always expressed clear racial hierarchies, but what surprised me are ways that gendered values create challenges for women from everything from hiring, to tenure and promotion, work/life balance, and leadership.
Testy: Can you give some examples of how you saw the intersection of race and gender creating barriers for women of color faculty?
Deo: Women of color professors have unique experiences. They are more likely to get pushback from students who put a premium on the white male professors they expect. Tenure and promotion rates are lower for women of color due in part to biased teaching evaluations that focus, for example, on physical appearance and style rather than pedagogical approach. Colleagues sometimes don’t view identity-based research as serious. I was inspired by how women of color professors look outside of their own schools to build community, regionally and nationally and by topic, gathering in identity-based groups and at conferences. Many told me they could not have made it as far as they have without this support.
Testy: What did the women you interviewed say about working in environments that are insufficiently diverse?
Deo: Almost every woman experienced marginalization, including “mansplaining” and “hepeating” from colleagues. (Hepeating is the term used to describe ideas originally expressed by women being heard or taken seriously only when they’re repeated by men; mansplaining is when a man seeks to explain to a woman things that she already knows, usually when she is more an expert than he is.) They’re also overloaded by service responsibilities, from university committees to student meetings. Women of color are more likely to serve on hiring committees to increase diversity. And, because female professors are seen by all students as more approachable, women faculty spend a lot more time meeting with students. Students of color identify female professors of color immediately as professors who will make time to serve their needs, and white students follow suit.
Testy: I know your previous research has been focused on the experience of law students. What impact does the lack of diversity among law professors have on them?
Deo: Improving diversity and inclusivity is good for institutions as a whole, resulting in better scholarship and a better law school experience for everyone. When women faculty are interrupted in class by irrelevant or confrontational questions, that takes away from every student’s learning. Encouraging diversity of scholarship and leadership also improves legal education overall. While representation — that is, students seeing role models who occupy similar identities — is not everything, it is a critical factor for creating an environment in which all students may thrive.
Testy: You interviewed an incredible range of people who shared their stories for the benefit of us all. During your research, did you hear about solutions you think are compelling?
Deo: Absolutely! Many of the individuals cited preparation as key to success. Some women of color crafted a classroom persona that oozes competence and authority. Other women made a pact to repeat one another’s ideas in meetings and give credit to the woman who first expressed the idea rather letting it be "hepeated." In addition to individual strategies, we should also look for structural solutions to address the systemic problems my book reveals. There are better ways to recruit instead of just looking at people who did law review, a clerkship, and a fellowship. For instance, one woman of color was recruited at a happy hour for IP attorneys. And we have to think about retention. At one law school where faculty meetings had been held at 4:00 p.m., moving their meetings to noon resulted in many more women attending, since some needed to leave in the afternoon to handle childcare before logging back on to work later in the evening. Commitment from administrators is key — overcoming implicit bias, employing out-of-the-box strategies, and purposefully seeking out women of color and other diverse employees is the best way forward.
Testy: We’ve recently seen many appointments of new deans, and the group seems to be becoming more diverse. Do you agree? What impact might this trend have?
Deo: There has been an increase in the number of women of color deans in the past few years. What’s interesting is that this coincides with ongoing challenges in legal education involving low enrollment, higher debt, and greater demands from students and accreditors. I’m hopeful that more women of color in formal leadership positions will signal greater inclusion in law school overall. It’s really an opportunity to change the model of legal education, to focus more on diversity, on retention, on giving voice to nontraditional students and faculty. I think those things are possible, especially if we support our new leaders and help them find the resources they need for their vision to succeed.