Female stereotypes persist in US courts, recent studies show. Bias affects jury selection and reactions to women attorneys

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

In courtrooms across the United States, women still find themselves judged on the basis of factors that trial researchers and feminists consider antiquated and prejudicial. Bias and stereotyped images, they say, influence jury selection, the treatment of female witnesses, and attitudes toward women attorneys and judges.

The New York Task Force on Women in the Courts, in a 1986 report, termed sex bias ``pervasive.'' It said the ``most insidious manifestation of gender bias against women ... is the tendency of some judges and attorneys to accord less credibility to the claims and testimony of women because they are women.''

The findings were nearly identical to those of the New Jersey Task Force on Women in the Courts in 1983. Similar panels in more than a dozen other states are investigating the issue. And it was examined earlier this month at the American Trial Lawyers Association convention in San Francisco by the Women Trial Lawyers Caucus.

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The various studies have turned up persistent stereotypes about women jurors, including the belief that:

Female jurors are more likely than male jurors to acquit in criminal cases, except when the crime involves a child or threat to family.

In civil cases, female jurors are more likely than males to vote in favor of the plaintiff, but vote for smaller awards than men do.

Female jurors are less likely to favor female defendants or female plaintiffs.

And a review of legal literature written as late as the 1970s about women jurors uncovers these comments:

``Where the client is a woman ... avoid other women upon the jury so far as possible. There is some truth to the ancient adage: `Woman is man's best friend and her own worst enemy.'''

Another author writes in a 1973 book on trial practice:

``Women tend to follow the mold of their husbands and are strongly influenced by the occupation[s] of their husband[s]. They also deviate in certain particulars which might not influence a man.... Women are tenderhearted.''

Some female attorneys find they are at times judged harshly by other women, says Patricia Bobb, a Chicago prosecutor turned civil trial lawyer. She recalls that a law partner, who was pregnant, was questioning a potential juror - an older woman - and inquired about what her daughter did.

The woman replied, ``She stays at home and takes care of her children.''

Ms. Bobb says that, contrary to some traditional stereotypes regarding female jurors, some studies show that women vote for conviction more often than men. And studies on attractiveness, she says, indicate that factor as favorable to clients whether they are male or female, ``because attractive people generally are perceived as more likable or successful.''

But, Bobb says, ``While recognizing there are biases and stereotypes, when it comes to making decisions, they [jurors] have common sense and somehow they do the right thing.''

Morleen Getz-Rouse, a Cincinnati trial consultant and instructor of legal communications, agrees: ``I reject a lot of research. It's done under such controlled circumstances that it's not in the real world.... A lot of this is conjecture [about female stereotypes]. I believe people go into deliberations and do the job regardless of [their] sex.''

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