Data on Women in Legal Academia:

In line with the discussion on the relative paucity of female Supreme Court clerks, it is interesting to note that the data show a very similar percentage of women in legal academia. According to the American Association of Law Schools, 35.3% of law school faculty were women as of the 2004-2005 academic year.

There may, however, be a generational transition going on, since the same AALS data show that 48.5% of assistant professors are women (the lowest rank of tenure-track faculty members), compared to 25% of full professors (the highest rank). Obviously, full professors are on average significantly older than assistant profs, and generally come from generations where women were less likely to pursue careers in law or academia. Other AALS stats show that female faculty are promoted to tenure at roughly the same rate as men with 61.6% of female and 65.9% of male tenure-track faculty hired in 1996-97 being promoted to tenure within 8 years; most law schools require tenure track faculty to get tenure or leave within 7 years of appointment.

However, it is still the case that far fewer women than men apply for jobs in Legal academia. AALS statistics show that only about 33.6% of of the candidates applying for legal academic jobs through the Faculty Appointments Register (AKA - the "Meat Market") in 2004-2005, were women. Women are now about 50% of the student body at most elite law schools. So academic careers are still on average less attractive to women than to men. Women FAR candidates actually have a higher success rate in getting jobs than male ones (18.9% vs. 15.6% in 2003-2004), though this tells us little in the absence of data on the relative quality of male and female candidates.

I have not studied the literature on the subject in any depth, but I tentatively suggest two possible reasons for the gender disparity in applications.

First, the "publish or perish" phase of an academic career usually occurs during the first seven years on the job. This is precisely the time (late twenties to mid thirties) when people tend to have children. Childcare is of course more likely to take up a large amount of time for women than for men. While this is not a problem for women who don't want children or for those willing to postpone having children until their late thirties, such a postponement increases the chance of birth defects and may also cause other problems in the family. Overall, this problem is likely to deter considerably more female applicants than male ones, both because men with children do less childcare work and because men can more easily postpone having kids until after getting tenure. Obviously, some female academics use their time so efficiently that they can simultaneously devote a lot of time to childcare and be just as productive as their male and childless female colleagues. But not all potential female academics are willing or able to take on this challenge.

Second, you are much more likely to get an academic job if you have few geographic constraints. If your best (or only) offer comes from University of Southwest North Dakota, you won't have much of a career unless you accept. Given the competitiveness of the market, many entry-level candidates are going to end up in that position. On average, men are far less willing to move to an unappealing location to advance a spouse's career than women are, thus making this dilemma more difficult for many female applicants. I also suspect that more female spouses of male academics have careers that can be pursued even in an out-of-the-way location (e.g. - teachers, nurses, secretaries, etc.) than male spouses of female ones. This factor may be more important than most people realize, because elite law school graduates who choose to work for a law firm instead of going into academia can usually get a job in any city they want. A female elite law school grad whose husband or boyfriend refuses to move therefore has a strong incentive to choose a firm over academia - even if the academic lifestyle is otherwise more appealing.

UPDATE: I initially misread the AALS table on tenure rate for men and women and so reported the data for FAILURE to get tenure within 8 years rather than success. I have now corrected the figures in the post.