Leaning in: Where Women Judges Stand in the US Judiciary

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In time with the celebration of International Women’s Month, the cause of the female gender in this patriarchal society gets a huge boost, thanks to a social media exec who has been turning heads these days.

It started a year ago with a book. In 2013 Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg published Lean In, a sort of manifesto for getting women into leadership roles and helping them balance work with the rest of their lives. The discussion surrounding the book propelled it to the top of both Amazon’s and the New York Times’ bestseller lists.

A year later, Sandberg once again made splashes when she partnered with the Girl Scouts of America and some important women to launch a campaign that seeks to ban the word “bossy.” The service campaign intends to encourage everyone to think twice about using “the other B-word,” as she called it, a word she claims teaches women to hold themselves back.

“When a little boy asserts himself, he’s called a ‘leader,’ the campaign explained. “Yet when a little girl does the same, she risks being branded ‘bossy.’”

So “leaning in” and “ban bossy” have become the catchphrase for today’s women constantly battling gender inequality. Every woman, including the female judges of the US judiciary.

A Long Way to Go

According to the biographical and demographic data on all federal judges provided by the Federal Judicial Center, there were 43 full-time women appellate and district court judges in 1981 when Sandra Day O’Connor became the first female Supreme Court justice. That’s just a measly 7% percent of the total number of court judges that time.

After three decades, however, the figure has ballooned to a whopping (by comparison) 30%. Of the 772 full-time judges in the US District Court and Courts of Appeal, there are now 235 female judges. The numbers more than quadrupled and in a way, women in the judiciary are “leaning in.”

But let’s admit it: it’s still a long way to go. To truly obtain gender diversity, the number of women in the federal judiciary, including the Supreme Court, must increase.

When Elena Kagan was appointed associate justice, the Supreme Court recorded its highest number of women sitting on the Bench at the same time at 3. However, it’s still only one-third of the total members of the Court. The bigger picture is unsurprisingly lopsided: of the 112 justices who have warmed the Bench of the Marble Palace, only four have been women.

Promising Developments

Last year, the Judicial Appointments Commission made public a most welcome statistic. For the first time in US Judicial history, women outnumbered their male counterparts in receiving recommendations for judicial posts.

Across 17 selection exercises for court and tribunal posts completed between April and September, 280 of those recommended for appointment were women. That’s an impressive 52%. Not lagging far behind, though, were 233 men. Overall, there were 3,529 applications for 543 posts. Of those who applied, 54% were women.

The selection for fee-paid employment judges, the only exercise that required legal qualifications and experience, attracted 723 applicants for just 58 positions. Women accounted for 43% of those recommended.

What are Its Implications?

If the currently pending judicial recommendations are confirmed, the number of women in the federal judiciary would increase. When that happens, our judiciary will become truly reflective of the diverse population of this nation, and Americans will have more confidence that their courts understand the real-world implications of their rulings.

The increased presence of women on the Bench will only improve the quality of justice. For instance, women judges can bring an understanding of the impact of the law on the lives of women and girls. In doing so, women judges enrich the court’s understanding of how best to realize the intended purpose and effect of the law that it is charged with applying.

The world will certainly be a better place when more and more women lean in.