When it comes to decision-making, trial court judges are just as influenced by gender bias as laypeople are, according to new research
Lady Justice isn’t so blind after all.
When it comes to decision-making, trial court judges are just as influenced by gender bias as laypeople are, a new study suggests — and may actually be even more biased. The research, published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science, casts reasonable doubt on the idea that judges’ subject-matter and decision-making expertise acts as a “buffer” against gender biases that affect ordinary people.
These findings, study author Andrea Miller told Moneyish, show that judges’ expertise isn’t a “panacea” for reducing bias. “If that’s the case with judges, we can probably expect that that’s the case with expertise in other fields, too,” said Miller, a visiting assistant professor of psychology at the University of Illinois.
The study, the first of a larger project examining disparities across gender, race, income and lawyer-representation status, had sitting trial court judges and laypeople make decisions on two hypothetical cases — one involving child custody, the other workplace discrimination — with identical case facts except for gender and race. Participants then completed questionnaires on their demographic info and support for traditional gender roles.
Judges’ decision-making in both cases was more affected by both the gender of the parties in the cases and their own gender ideology compared to laypeople’s, Miller’s study found. And judges’ gender biases hurt both male and female plaintiffs in different ways: The more judges in the custody case bought into traditional gender roles, for example, the more likely they were to award greater custody time to mothers over fathers. “The extra half-day or so that the mothers were getting of parenting time per week,” Miller said, “adds up to almost a month every year.” A specialty in family law, meanwhile, didn’t help reduce the influence of gender ideology on judges’ decisions.
In the employment discrimination case, men’s cases were more likely to be dismissed out of hand and not have a chance to go to trial, Miller said, while women’s outcomes were more affected by the ideologies of the judges.
“These findings suggest that the expertise that judges possess does not buffer them against the biasing influence of gender ideology,” Miller wrote in her paper. “These findings also raise the possibility that expertise may open the door for greater bias in some cases.”
The news isn’t all bleak, Miller stressed, as the judges participating in this study actually approached the researchers in an effort to see if their decision-making might be flawed. “These judges were being very progressive in taking the initiative,” Miller said. “The optimistic side is that these people are working hard to change things and make things better.”
While it remains unclear why expertise doesn’t make people immune to gender bias, Miller has several ideas she plans to test in the future — for example, expertise could make people overconfident in their ability to not be affected by social biases; lead people to decide more intuitively and heuristically rather than deliberately and slowly; or cause people to have different emotional reactions to the information than it does non-experts.
The goal going forward, Miller said, is to figure out how to change legal procedures so that even if people hold certain ideologies, beliefs or stereotypes, they can keep them from leaking out into a final decision.
Practical solutions would be highly context-specific, she said, but might include requiring judges to write a written opinion explaining their decisions; having judges take a five-minute recess before issuing a final ruling; or requiring bond courts to use risk-assessment software to predict which offenders are most likely to try to flee before trial — rather than having a human make the call.
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