Paul L. Caron

Monday, October 25, 2021

Women Law Deans, Gender Sidelining, And Presumptions Of Incompetence

Laura M. Padilla (California Western), Women Law Deans, Gender Sidelining, and Presumptions of Incompetence, 35 Berkeley J. Gender L. & Just. 1 (2020):

In 2007, I wrote A Gendered Update on Women Law Deans: Who, Where, Why, and Why Not? [hereinafter A Gendered Update], which examined the number of women law deans, including women of color, their paths to deanships, and what the future might hold for decanal leadership from a gendered and racialized lens. A Gendered Update reported that in the 2005-2006 period, thirty-one law deans at the 166 Association of American Law Schools (“AALS”) member schools were women (18.7%). Only three of the thirty-one women law deans were women of color (1.8%).

Much new scholarship concerning women in leadership has emerged since I wrote A Gendered Update. One book and one article in particular prompted me to return to the topic of women law deans. In 2012, the University Press of Colorado published the groundbreaking book, Presumed Incompetent: The Intersections of Race and Class for Women in Academia [hereinafter Presumed Incompetent]. Presumed Incompetent is a powerful collection of essays that explore presumptions of incompetence that haunt women of color in the Academy. It noted, “[a]lthough intellectually we understand institutionalized systems of domination, study them, and teach their details and histories, in our hearts and innermost selves we may also—at the same time—somehow internalize the ideas about our presumed incompetence that are so pervasive in our everyday lives.” The same presumptions of incompetence that accompany women when they enter the Academy often follow them up the career ladder through the tenure process. These presumptions are even present when women are appointed as deans, sowing seeds of doubt about their competence and undermining what may appear from the outside to be enviable careers.

Professor Jessica Fink wrote Gender Sidelining and the Problem of Unactionable Discrimination [hereinafter Gender Sidelining], which was published in 2018. Gender Sidelining explores harmful gender-generated behaviors which are neither actionable nor significant enough individually to warrant a comprehensive response, but whose cumulative effect can be devastating: [W]omen experience … adverse treatment at work that the law does not address: [Men] workers often garner more of the limelight than their [women] coworkers, attracting more attention and recognition. Women often lack access to important opportunities or feel subjected to greater scrutiny than their [man] peers… None of these slights, in isolation, likely would give rise to a viable antidiscrimination claim. Yet collectively, these incidents— . . . “gender sidelining”—accumulate to create very real obstacles and barriers to advancements for women at work.

Women in law school leadership positions, especially women of color, are intimately familiar with gender sidelining, having experienced it in positions leading up to their deanships, and while running their institutions. It has been over twelve years since I wrote A Gendered Update, about seven years since Presumed Incompetent went to press, and just over a year since Gender Sidelining was published. Each work has a different thesis, yet their discussions of presumptions of incompetence and gender sidelining all address challenges that women, especially women of color, face in leadership roles. This Article explores these same topics in the context of law deans.

This Article starts with updated data on the number of women law deans, including women of color, and demonstrates increased numbers of both women and women of color in deanships. It then shifts to plausible explanations for this growth: some optimistic and some more skeptical. On the positive side, it is logical that new appointments reflect women’s increased representation in the broader legal population, which serves as the source of most new dean hires. In addition, there seems to be some recognition that women bring something new and different to leadership: a greater willingness to change, be flexible, and approach old problems in new ways. On the other hand, running a law school has become more challenging because of a decline in applications and credentials since 2011, which has translated into smaller classes and budgets, voluntary and involuntary layoffs, more work, and less pay. It may be no coincidence that as the job became less desirable, women were appointed in greater numbers.

Next, this Article provides narrative descriptions of women’s experiences in leadership, including experiences unique to women of color, such as common stories of presumptions of incompetence, and gender sidelining. The stories are culled from surveys sent to all women law deans. The survey responses reveal challenges in leadership roles, risks taken, and battles won and lost, and display increased obstacles for women of color. This Part also dissects women deans’ experiences with presumptions of incompetence and gender sidelining, and explores relationship and family patterns revealed by survey responses. It also compares the answers from these surveys to those conducted for A Gendered Update, and suggests potential trends and truths.

The next Part of this Article develops ideas on how to continue increasing the number of women law deans and provide them support for success. It also outlines ideas and tools to prevent, ameliorate, and end gender sidelining and presumptions of incompetence. Even more promising, it also explores how to flip the script on these destructive forces and celebrate the strength, change, and opportunities women bring to law school communities through their leadership. This Article closes with a summary and cautious hope for continued diversification of the decanal ranks.

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