Perception of gender bias lingers in state courts, surveys show

January 7, 2002

A perception of gender bias lingers in Mississippi state courts, according to surveys of judges, court staff and lawyers.

The Supreme Court of Mississippi Task Force on Gender Fairness today submitted its findings to the Legislature.

Findings include:

Task force Honorary Chair Evelyn Gandy said, "We appreciate the leadership of our Supreme Court in recognizing the importance of gender fairness in our judicial system. We are very pleased that our findings from professional research indicate that significant progress has been made in achieving gender fairness."

Gandy said, "We express our appreciation to all judges, attorneys and court personnel who have contributed to the elimination of gender discrimination in our justice system."

Task force Co-Chair Amy Whitten said that while public perception is important, she doesn't believe that the quality of justice is affected by bias.

"I have not seen anything from my own personal vantage point that has made me question the correctness of any of the rulings" from courts, Whitten said. "I don't think the perception is matched by the outcome of actual cases."

But, Whitten said, "The public's faith in the system is almost as important as getting a correct decision. You've got to address that perception."

University of Mississippi Professor John W. Winkle III of the Social Science Research Laboratory oversaw the survey. Winkle in a report summary said responses from attorneys, judges and court personnel "show that almost two-thirds (65.2 percent) of these legal professionals believe that there is unfairness toward women in Mississippi courts, though most describe it as limited and isolated. In contrast, only 44.7 percent of all respondents perceive any unfairness toward men. Of that total, the vast majority (90 percent) say it is quite limited."

Winkle said some survey respondents dismissed the behaviors as vestiges of a bygone age, while others expressed disgust.

Winkle wrote, "The gender divide is especially instructive. Simply put, women in the surveys illustrate greater awareness of the core problems. They are much more likely than men to observe and report incidents of biased behavior. Often women in the legal process see females as targets and males as beneficiaries of prejudicial behavior, by word and deed, because of their gender."

Winkle wrote, "While disrespectful behavior may be less evident and less overt today than years ago (at least according to anecdotal accounts), its vestiges nonetheless remain. Numbers of women, whether attorneys or judges or court personnel, report incidents of patronizing comments or unwanted touches. Fully one-third of women attorneys, for example, have received, witnessed, or heard about remarks disrespectful to women. Many lawyers report that they have routinely been called affectionate names, such as 'honey,' 'dear,' 'sugar,' or 'little lady' both inside and outside the courtroom."

Winkle wrote, "Almost one-half of female attorneys believe that they were treated in a less dignified or unequal manner, and that made a difference in their practice of law."

Outlining responses from court personnel, Winkle wrote, "More disturbing, one-fourth of respondents report experience or second-hand familiarity with female employees receiving unwanted sexual advances. Furthermore, they believe that they receive less respect overall from men judges and lawyers."

Winkle said, "From all indications the topic of gender fairness is seldom addressed in the workplace in any formal or systematic way. It appears to be treated in a much more episodic, if not haphazard, fashion. On the positive side, however, court personnel regard their bosses as approachable and perceive judges as willing to intervene when instances of unfairness occur."

In an analysis of the court staff survey, Winkle said, "Disturbing differences exist between the work environment perceptions of women and men. Women are four times as likely as men to believe that their job responsibilities have been improperly increased because of their gender - twice as likely to report that they are asked to perform duties that would not be asked of their male colleagues."

"Worse, women are more than twice as likely as men to report that hiring decisions in their court are gender-based and a whopping four times more likely to perceive career advancement limitations owing only to gender. Most discouraging of all, fully 46 percent of female respondents in the court personnel survey reported that their salaries were influenced by their genders. This compares to a mere 8.5 percent of the male respondents," Winkle wrote. "Certainly, these results present some of the most clear and convincing evidence in favor of reform efforts."

Other survey areas outlined by Winkle include:

Winkle said, "The perpetrators, it seems, span the professional spectrum, though respondents tend to single out attorneys more often than men judges or court personnel."

Winkle concluded, "Survey results did not identify a clear-cut location of biased behavior. It tends to occur both inside and outside the courtroom, and for that matter across courts....Respondents tend to tag men attorneys as common offenders. Yet no one, it seems, is immune. Judges and court personnel also come under fire. What this means is that all locales and actors in the court system deserve some attention from policymakers."

The task force recommended that the Mississippi Judicial College should be encouraged to continue its efforts to incorporate components on gender awareness in all of its scheduled seminars and to develop separate training sessions, where needed, to assist legal professionals in the identification of gender issues.

Supreme Court Chief Justice Edwin L. Pittman noted that the Supreme Court has taken steps to address gender fairness in the Code of Judicial Conduct. Proposed changes awaiting action by the court address discrimination. The entire code has also been rewritten to make it gender neutral.

Proposed anti-bias language includes these provisions:

The task force will seek public comment as a follow-up to the surveys, said task force Co-Chair Deanne Mosley. Public hearings are expected to be scheduled at several locations across the state. Dates and locations have yet to be announced. A public opinion survey also may be posted later on the Supreme Court's web site, www.mssc.state.ms.us.

The Mississippi Supreme Court created the Task Force on Gender Fairness by order on Aug. 26, 1998. It's mission was to determine the nature and scope of gender bias and to propose measures to reduce or eliminate bias. The 50-member task force is made up of lawyers, retired judges and lay persons from across the state.

The task force hired the Social Science Research Laboratory to insure confidentiality of the survey results and to do data analysis.

The Administrative Office of Courts mailed surveys to members of the bench and bar and court staff. The first set of questionnaires in July 2000 went to 6,632 attorneys. In February 2001, surveys went to 635 trial and appellate court judges. In May and June, 2,526 surveys went to court staff.

Winkle reported 1,045 responses from attorneys (15.8 percent), 153 responses from judges (24.1 percent) and 638 responses from court personnel (26.9 percent).

About 21 percent of the lawyers licensed to practice in Mississippi are women.

The task force between June 1, 2000, and Oct. 31, 2001, spent $50,436.74. The funding included $36,936.74 spent by the Administrative Office of Courts and $13,500 in a State Justice Institute grant.

For more information, contact Beverly Pettigrew Kraft, court public information officer and task force member, at 601-354-7452.

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