The proportion of women on the judicial bench varies widely between countries according to a report by the Special Rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers, Diego Garcia-Sayan.
The report, ‘Participation of women in the administration of justice’, recommends that each country should take steps to ensure a target of at least 50 percent of women at the various levels of the judiciary and prosecution services by 2030, as part of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.
However, the report indicates that in some jurisdictions, the proportion of women is already higher than 50 percent. Across Europe, women form an average of 54 percent of judges, a figure boosted by, for example, Latvia (81 percent) and Romania (79 percent). But there are sharp contrasts: in Nepal women form six percent of judges and magistrates, while in Pakistan, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, women judges represent less than one percent of the bench. In Kuwait, Oman, Saudi Arabia and Somalia, there were, at 2019, no women judges at all.
Another marked feature of the report’s findings is that women judges are often clustered around courts that deal with issues thought appropriate for this gender: family courts, for example. A stark indicator of this tendency comes from Pakistan where ‘all family court judges are women’.
The report is further concerned about the fact that women are seriously under represented in the higher echelons of the judicial system. It notes that, in countries where entry to the judiciary is by ‘public competition’ and where written and oral exams are held, with scoring based on objective criteria, ‘there is greater participation and appointment of women’ as judges. But this did not necessarily carry through in relation to promotion, ‘especially in the appointment of women judges to the higher courts.’
Where women are appointed, however, it sometimes takes place in a way that does not dislodge systemic and cultural discrimination. For example, ‘gender stereotypes influence the allocation of tasks to women judges, who are often relegated to social, family or juvenile courts, thereby excluding them from other offices and limiting their access to leadership and decision-making positions.’
The report notes that patriarchal patterns and gender stereotypes were a major factor responsible for perpetuating inequality and disparity in the proportion of women judges, with criminal, business and national security courts tending to be heavily weighted in favour of men.
As in many other professions, women in the judiciary and the prosecution services experience problems trying to manage work and family life. Being largely responsible for child-rearing, family care and housework means that women are often disadvantaged with obstacles to resuming judicial work and to promotion because their family commitments mean they ‘do not have the number of years or the seniority necessary to compete on equal terms.’
Women in the judiciary are not shielded from problems experienced by women in other fields, and ‘regardless of their region, women judges have reported being victims of workplace or sexual harassment at some point in their careers.’ Associations of women judges tend to include methods to deal with such problems among their objectives.
‘The Special Rapporteur urges States to adopt clear and safe procedures for women judges and prosecutors to report acts of violence or sexual harassment in safety and without fear of retaliation, unjustified dismissal or stigmatisation. States must take the necessary measures to ensure that such acts do not go unpunished.’
The report also acknowledges the efforts being made by a number of countries to try to ensure gender equality in the judicial and prosecutorial system. ‘Substantial results have been achieved, but they are still insufficient.’
‘States must redouble their efforts because, according to the World Economic Forum, at the current rate of change, it will take nearly a century to achieve equality. This time lapse is unacceptable.’
And it’s not just a question of promoting equality policies: ‘Above all, it is necessary to guarantee a work-life balance that makes the acceptance of greater professional responsibilities compatible with family responsibilities, a deficiency that often constitutes the structural causal factor in the lower presence of women.’
Among the report’s recommendations is that a quota system should be implemented to ensure that, by 2030, half of public positions, both in the judiciary and the prosecutions services, are held by women.
It also urges that stereotypes be eliminated that pigeonhole women in specific areas of law or at certain levels within the judicial hierarchy.