Microaggressions Experienced By Women in Law School

Having just finished my first month of classes as a 1L at law school, I see now how classes, cold calls, and reading assignments can really wear people down and precipitate impostor syndrome. While we fight off self doubts, it is particularly disheartening to also have to defend ourselves from microaggressive commentary—little hints here and there that suggest people’s surprise that I am Harvard material.

For example, sometimes when I said I was going to Harvard Law, my conversational partner of the moment would ask, “But did you get accepted?” In response, my internal monologue was usually something like: Ah, he thinks I’m telling lies or I’m too stupid to understand how admissions work! Do I start explaining that I understand the difference between an unachieved goal and a statement of fact? Do I make a joke that I’m attending Harvard despite a rejection letter? Should I pull out my resume and LSAT score to try to convince him I am not fibbing? I’ll just go with the usual. Smile and reply, “Yep! Who knows how that happened!”

Another time, someone asked, “No, really, where do you go to school?” Social etiquette discourages eye rolling, even in the face of condescension, but sometimes, people make it so hard. I get it—I don’t look like any of the people on SUITS, but for my peers to promulgate a public perception of the Harvard Law student that is so white, male, and stereotypically masculine is not a fun experience for me. Nor does it help with keeping up my confidence when my professors cold call me and I am too flustered to answer.

And of course, I am not alone. My friend, Jessica*, for example, shared a similar experience when she tried to break the good news of her HLS acceptance to some friends:

 “Wow! How did you get in?” he asked, incredulously. I’m sitting over beers with some old friends. I got the phone call from the admissions office at my dream law school this morning and my head has been spinning all day. But the spinning now has stopped. And I can feel myself going on the defensive. But it’s a feeling that I’m familiar with and instead of shooting back a “I worked my ass off, that’s how.” I smile and reply, “Someone at the admissions office made a mistake,” I joked. His thoughtless burst turned the moment sour. Should I start to assure him of my qualifications? Does my work experience as a successful artist, editor-in-chief of a college newspaper, and experienced debater not impress him? Others around the table offered the congratulations I deserved—but one ugly comment pushed me back into a corner and forced me to make a self-deprecating joke to lighten the mood. I change the topic and make a note not to mention Harvard again to this friend group.

And some suffer through remarks that are both sexist and racist. My classmate Rachel had an ex-friend tell her that she only got into Harvard because she is black. Unfortunately, comments like that are extremely common for black students. Oftentimes, white and East Asian people are openly hostile towards black people in Ivy Leagues, racistly assuming that black people are somehow underqualified to attend prestigious institutions. Even now, a student group is suing Harvard admissions for allegedly prioritizing other minority groups at the expense of East Asians applicants.

So not only do microaggressive comments mar people’s self-confidence and perception of what it means to belong at law school, it creates a venomous environment where certain students do not feel accepted by their peers or feel extra pressure to perform well to prove their worth. Thoughtless and careless words, each microaggression like a papercut into one’s self-perception, can cause long term harm and it constructs a fraught law school experience, even though 1L is already stressful.

If you are someone who experiences sexist and/or racist microaggressions, let it be known, you belong. You are heard. You must block out noise and move forward. If not, let it be known, preventing microaggressions is your responsibility—call out your peers, friends, family, and most importantly, yourself.  

*I share this story with her permission. These are fake names. 

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