Judges are influenced by their attitude to traditional gender roles when ruling on family cases, researchers have claimed.
In a newly published study they compared the responses of more than 500 US judges from a single (but unidentified) state, and an equal number of civilians. The gender breakdown of the judges was 68 per cent men to 30 per cent women, with two per cent unidentified. The civilian subjects were a little more evenly balanced: 59 per cent men vs 41 per cent women.
The two mock cases concerned the emotive topics sex discrimination and child custody (residence). In each case, the plaintiff was presented as both male and female in different scenarios. In the first case, participants were told that the complainant had claimed they’d been denied a promotion after taking six weeks off work to look after an adopted baby.
In the second case, the researchers explained that a mother and father, who both worked full time, were arguing over who should have primary care of their children.
In addition to giving their thoughts on the hypothetical cases, the participants were polled on their attitudes to traditional beliefs about gender, such as whether women should be the primary carers and whether children were better off if their fathers were the primary breadwinners in a family.
In the first case the researchers found that judges who believed in traditional gender roles were more likely than civilians with similar beliefs to dismiss the case or rule against female plaintiffs. Traditionally-minded judges were also much more likely than similarly minded lay people to favour the mother in the latter case. Just three per cent of the judges gave the father more time with the children than the mother.
Researcher Andrea Miller is a Professor of Psychology at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. She explained:
“These results show that judges’ ideology and life experiences might influence their court decisions. 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.”
“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.”
The study was published by the academic journal Social Psychological and Personality Science.