Women in the Judiciary: What solutions to advance gender-responsive and gender-diverse justice systems?

Towards Gender Equality Before the Law. Agenda

Kate Brooks, OECD Directorate for Public Governance and Territorial Development (GOV)

In recent decades, the number of women in the judiciary has significantly increased worldwide. In many countries around half of law students are women, and 2014 data shows that women in OECD countries make up more than 54% of professional judges. But women are still vastly underrepresented in top-ranking judicial positions including on High Court benches and other senior roles in the legal profession. What are the obstacles to women’s legal leadership? How can we overcome them?

In 2015 the UK’s only female Supreme Court judge, Baroness Hale, criticised all-male appointments. Hale has been a strong advocate of improving diversity, questioning whether an element of positive discrimination may eventually be needed to redress gender imbalance. Increasing gender balance on high court benches helps to preserve the legitimacy of the courts as representative of the societies that they serve and enables courts to understand the real-world implications of their rulings. Enhancing gender diversity in the justice system helps maintain public confidence, reduces barriers to women’s access to justice, such as stigma associated with reporting violence and abuse, and ensures a more balanced approach to enforcing the law. A higher presence of women jurists is vital to ensuring the implementation and safeguarding of equality rights. Courts that operate free of gender bias and other forms of discriminatory practices can be powerful drivers of social change.

The under-representation of women in high-level courts partly relates to horizontal gender segregation in the judiciary in OECD countries. Usually, women tend to be better represented in family and other first-instance courts, resulting in fewer women being promoted into upper courts. On average, women hold 45.9% of Presidencies in Courts of First Instance, 28% in Courts of Second Instance, and 18.6% in Supreme Courts (CEPEJ 2016).

The barriers faced by women in the judiciary are similar to those encountered in other areas of public life. In addition to challenges in balancing work/life commitments, persisting gender stereotypes, lack of development opportunities and gender bias in promotions; stringent requirements for judicial appointments and selection methods tend to impede women from becoming top judges.

Since women are often successful at gaining entry into the legal profession but progress slowly into senior posts, re-visiting the corporate culture and working conditions, and introducing mentorship schemes are necessary considerations. Regardless of government policies, leadership and independent monitoring of outcomes are essential components to ensure a more diverse judiciary.

Note: Data not available for Australia, Canada, Chile, Japan, Korea, Mexico, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States‌
Source: European judicial systems Efficiency and quality of justice, CEPEJ STUDIES No. 23 (Edition 2016, 2014 data)

The 2015 OECD Recommendation on Gender Equality in Public Life provides a range of options to enable equal access to leadership opportunities- including in the judiciary. It includes measures to strengthen institutional capacities for effective governance and the mainstreaming of gender equality across all policy areas. The OECD continues to work to support countries in addressing the remaining barriers to gender equality in public life. A toolkit to guide both members and non-members is currently in development.

On March 10 high-level government officials and non-governmental experts will share their experiences and views on how countries can better respond to the needs of women and girls by linking gender equality perspectives with improved access to justice. The event is open to the public.

Useful links

OECD Event on Gender Equality before the Law

 Women in government

OECD (2016), 2015 OECD Recommendation of the Council on Gender Equality in Public Life, OECD Publishing, Paris.

OECD (2014), Women, Government and Policy Making in OECD Countries: Fostering Diversity for Inclusive Growth, OECD Publishing, Paris.

Women in Public Life; Gender, Law and Policy in the Middle East and North Africa

Guest author

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