Expert Commentary

Sex discrimination cases more likely to settle under female judges

Alleged victims of workplace sex discrimination are more likely to settle their federal lawsuits and be awarded compensation under a woman judge, a study suggests. 

Judge's gavel and books

Alleged victims of workplace sex discrimination are more likely to settle federal lawsuits and be awarded compensation under a woman judge, a study suggests. 

The issue: In recent decades, more women have been appointed or elected as judges — an important change, advocates say, if the judiciary is to be more reflective of the communities it serves. In 2016, 31 percent of state court judges were female, up from 26 percent in 2010, according to the National Association of Women Judges. When Elena Kagan joined the U.S. Supreme Court in 2010, she became the third woman among its nine justices for the first time in history.

As the judiciary becomes more diverse, scholars are trying to gauge whether and how a judge’s gender might impact his or her decisions. To date, studies have mostly focused on appellate court judges and the findings have been mixed.

A new study looks at how male and female federal district court judges handle lawsuits alleging workplace sex discrimination.

A study worth reading: “When the Shadow is the Substance: Judge Gender and the Outcomes of Workplace Sex Discrimination Cases,” forthcoming in the Journal of Labor Economics, 2018.

Study summary: Matthew Knepper, a research economist with the U.S. Department of Commerce, examined lawsuits that the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) filed in federal district court. The EEOC enforces federal laws prohibiting various types of workplace discrimination.

Knepper analyzed about 2,300 cases alleging workplace sex discrimination that the EEOC filed between 1997 and 2006. Because only a small fraction of such cases make it to trial, he focused on the choices that judges, plaintiffs and defendants make prior to trial and whether those choices differed under female and male judges.

Key findings:

  • Whenever a female judge is assigned to the case, plaintiffs are 6.7 percentage points more likely to settle and 7.1 percentage points more likely to be awarded a judgement.
  • Having a male judge reduces the likelihood that a female plaintiff will receive financial compensation. Female plaintiffs are 5 to 7 percent more likely to win compensation when a female judge is assigned to the case. There is little evidence, though, that compensation amounts differ according to a judge’s sex.
  • Female judges are 15 percentage points less likely to grant motions filed by the defendant.
  • “Evidence suggests that female judges are better able to perceive less egregious forms of sex discrimination … While one would expect that male and female judges would reach the same conclusions in clear-cut cases, it could be that the more marginal cases account for the overall difference in settlement and plaintiff compensation rates.”
  • If the percentage of women serving as federal circuit court judges increased from the current level of about 30 percent to 50 percent, an estimated 1.5 percent more workplace sex discrimination lawsuits would be settled in favor of the alleged victim.

Other resources:

  • The EEOC received 25,605 reports of workplace sex discrimination in fiscal year 2017, down from 30,356 reports five years earlier.
  • A December 2017 report from the Pew Research Center suggests 42 percent of working women in the U.S. have experienced gender-based work discrimination. Reports of discrimination vary across education levels. Nearly 60 percent of women with postgraduate degrees reported experiencing gender discrimination at work, compared to 40 percent of women with a bachelor’s degree and 39 percent of women who went to college but did not obtain a bachelor’s degree.
  • The American Civil Liberties Union tracks state legislation that allows or protects against discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity or expression.
  • The National Association of Women Judges offers an interactive map showing the number and percentage of female judges in each state. For example, 29 percent of the judges presiding over state and county-level courts in Texas are women compared to 19 percent in Wyoming and 43 percent in Oregon.
  • A 2015 report from the United Nations examines discrimination and violence based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

Related research:

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