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Charles Hamilton Houston quote

  News & Views

Black Men May Have Begun to Close the Gender Gap in African-American Law School Enrollments

Over the past quarter of a century, black women have been outperforming black men in almost every area of higher education.

In law school education, a field that once was almost exclusively reserved for men, African-American women now make up more than 61 percent of all black enrollments at the nation’s highest-ranked law schools. The good news is that black men now may have begun to close the gap.

Since this journal was founded in 1993, we have repeatedly ad-dressed a persisting and highly disturbing trend. This is that in higher education black women now hold a huge advantage over black men by almost every measure of attainment. Moreover, the higher education gender gap among blacks is worsening every year. In fact, if the trend in bachelor’s degree attainments over the past quarter century were to continue on a straight-line basis into the future, black men will not be earning a single degree in higher education by the year 2100.

This result, of course, is highly unlikely, yet the projection informs us of a very serious problem.

Traditionally, the legal profession has told a different story. Legal education for blacks and whites has been dominated by both black men and white men. In 1873 the U.S. Supreme Court, in the case Bradwell v. Illinois, upheld the right of a state to prohibit a woman from practicing law on account of her gender. As late as the 1960s Harvard Law School admitted women, but one faculty member refused to call on them except on what he designated as Ladies Day, a class time he set aside for that purpose. In 1963 there were only 1,739 female students enrolled in law school in the United States. They made up less than 4 percent of all law school enrollments.

But during the 1970s women of all races began to attend law school in large numbers. In 1971 there were 6,682 women enrolled in American law schools. By the end of the decade, women enrollments in law schools had increased about fivefold to more than 37,000. As late as 1980, women still made up only 12 percent of all lawyers in the United States. 

Over the past 25 years women have made huge strides in legal education. Today there are more than 71,000 women enrolled in law schools in the United States, making up 46.9 percent of total enrollments. In 2008 women earned 47.1 percent of all law degrees awarded in the United States.

Historical statistics on black women enrollments in law school are sketchy. But we do know that it was not until 1956 that the first black woman graduated from the nation’s then most highly regarded school of law, Harvard Law School. This was nearly a century after the first black man had earned a law degree at Harvard.


Black Women at Top Law Schools Today

Black women now have become dominant in African-American legal education as they have in almost every area of higher education in the United States. A JBHE analysis finds that in the 2008-09 academic year black women made up 61.7 percent of the African-American enrollments at the nation’s 50 highest-ranked law schools. This is nearly 15 percentage points higher than for women enrollments in law schools as a whole.

In the 2008-09 academic year there were 1,747 black women enrolled at the 50 highest-rated law schools. At 43 of these 50 top-rated law schools, women made up a majority of the African-American students. At 25 of the 50 top-rated schools, black women made up 60 percent or more of the African-American students.

At seven law schools with large numbers of black students — Emory, the College of William and Mary, the University of California at Berkeley, the University of Georgia, American University, the University of California at San Francisco, and the University of Virginia — black women made up more than 70 percent of African-American enrollments.

Today black women make up less than 50 percent of the African-American enrollments at only six of the nation’s 50 highest-ranked law schools: the University of Arizona, the University of California at Davis, Northwestern University, the University of Illinois, the University of Minnesota, and Yeshiva University.

The emerging dominance of black women over black men in the legal profession is also happening at the nation’s six historically black law schools. Black women make up a clear majority of the law students at each of these six schools. At all six of these schools combined, black women make up 63.2 percent of all African-American enrollments. This rate is very similar to the percentage of black women among African-American law school students at the nation’s top 50 law schools.


Black Men May Have Stemmed the Tide

JBHE conducted a similar survey five years ago. Since that time black men have narrowed the gap with black women. Five years ago black women made up 64.3 percent of all African-American enrollments at the nation’s 50 highest-ranked law schools compared to 61.7 percent today. Five years ago there were only three top law schools at which black men were a majority of all African-American enrollments. In this survey there are six.

Five years ago black women were 60 percent or more of African-American enrollments at 33 of the 50 top law schools. Today the figure is 25. In our earlier survey there were nine leading law schools where black women made up 70 percent or more of all African-American enrollments. In this year’s survey there are seven top law schools where black women are at least 70 percent of all black enrollments.

Five years ago black women made up 63.4 percent of all African-American enrollments at the black law schools. As we stated earlier, today black women are 63.2 percent of all African-American enrollments at the six law schools at HBCUs.


Why Do Black Women Excel in Legal Education?

What is the reason black women have come to dominate African-American legal education in this country? Clearly, the fact that black women earn nearly two thirds of all black bachelor’s degrees in the United States necessarily will result in a larger pool of black women, compared to black men, who have the option of entering law school.

Furthermore, some surveys show that upwards of 80 percent of all students on the honor rolls at the nation’s historically black colleges and universities are women. Therefore, black women appear more likely than black men to be achieving the high grade point averages in their undergraduate years that will enable them to qualify for admission to law school.

But the issue of why black women are pursuing a difficult law curriculum at a faster rate than black men also raises some extremely sensitive issues:

• Some standardized tests suggest that black women tend to be better writers than black men. Writing ability is an important qualification for success in law school.

• Law firms, in common with commercial organizations in general, get employment credit for “two-fers” — the hiring of a black and a woman. Black women often attend law school to take advantage of the strong demand for African-American women at law firms.

• According to some demographers, 75 percent of African-American children spend a portion of their childhood without a father. If, as is likely, the presence of a father as a guide and role model is more important to the future ambitions of boys than of girls, it seems likely that for this reason alone fewer young African-American males will be showing up to face the minefield of three years of law school.