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Traditional gender bias found to influence courtroom decisions

New research has revealed that judges are just as biased as everyone else in their decisions when traditional gender roles are challenged. Discrimination in the courtroom was found to work both ways, sometimes against men and sometimes against women.

Andrea Miller is a visiting assistant professor of Psychology at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.

“These results show that judges’ ideology and life experiences might influence their court decisions,” said Miller. “Many judges are not able to factor out their personal beliefs while they are considering court cases, even when they have the best possible intentions.”

The study, which was an effort to address gender bias in one particular state, was focused on over 500 judges in the state’s court system. For confidentiality purposes, the court system was not identified.

“The judges who participated in the study did so at great personal and professional risk because they care deeply about confronting the possibility that there might be social group disparities in case outcomes,” said Miller. “This state court system has become a leader in the search for evidence-based solutions to the problem of implicit bias.”

Of the judges participating in the investigation, 68 percent were men, 30 percent were women, and 2 percent were unidentified. Over 500 non-professionals were also recruited to take part in the study.

The participants completed surveys about their beliefs on traditional gender roles, such as stereotypes about what roles men and women are expected to play. The judges and lay people also analyzed two mock court cases, including a child custody case and a sex discrimination lawsuit.

The plaintiff in the sex discrimination lawsuit, who was identified as either a man or a woman, alleged that they were denied a promotion after six weeks of paid leave to care for an adopted baby. The plaintiff wanted an expert to testify about research on sex discrimination.

The study revealed that judges who supported traditional gender roles were more likely than lay people to dismiss the case or rule against a female plaintiff.

In the custody case, the parents were both seeking primary custody of their two children. The mother and father both worked full-time jobs and had an equal amount of conflicts with caring for the children.

Judges and lay people who supported traditional gender roles all gave more custody rights to the mother than to the equally-qualified father. Furthermore, the researchers found that only 3 percent of the judges gave the father more custody time than the mother, which was far more biased than the lay people.

“In both of these cases, support for traditional gender roles was associated with decisions that encouraged women to engage in more family caregiving at the expense of their careers and discouraged men from participating in family caregiving at all,” said Miller.

“Cultural ideas about gender bias may shape judges’ decision-making as much as the rest of us. The significant expertise that judges possess doesn’t inoculate them again decision-making biases, and we can’t expect much change until we see policy reforms that address decision-making procedures in the courtroom.”

The study is published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer

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