Ruling out Court Gender Bias

Article excerpt

IT is a scene that could occur in any courthouse across the country:

A male judge directs a comment to a male attorney, addressing him as "Attorney Jones." But when the judge speaks to a female attorney, he adopts a more informal approach, calling her simply "Ms. Smith."

An unintentional and harmless slip? Perhaps. But according to proponents of gender equality, this kind of unequal treatment can subtly shade the perception and treatment of women in the courts.

So pervasive is the problem that more than 30 states have conducted gender-bias studies of judicial systems in recent years. Although some states have issued reports, Massachusetts has become the first to publish a "Court Conduct Handbook," offering specific guidelines for achieving equal treatment.

Subtitled "Gender Equality in the Courts," the eight-page booklet is being distributed this month to 5,500 court employees, as well as to lawyers and bar association leaders. The Committee for Gender Equality, which produced the handbook, hopes it will become a national model.

"A lot of people unwittingly engage in sexually biased behavior and may not realize that what they're doing is inappropriate," says Maria Moynihan, primary author of the handbook. Formerly an assistant attorney general in Massachusetts and now an attorney with Ardiff & Morse in Danvers, Mass., Ms. Moynihan drew on her own experiences and the findings of a 1989 gender-bias study in writing the booklet.

The handbook is a deliberate study in brevity and understatement. As Ruth Abrams, associate justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court and head of the Committee for Gender Equality, explains, "If the rules are simple and it's not voluminous, it's easier for people to comply with. If you hand them an encyclopedia, nobody's going to read it.

"I think there's a lot of good will among court personnel everywhere," Justice Abrams continues. "But there is confusion about what's appropriate and what isn't."

The handbook leaves no doubt as to what is not appropriate. Terms of endearment such as honey, sweetie, and dear "imply that women have lower status or less power," the text states. "These terms can demean or offend women even if the speaker does not intend to do so."

Similiarly, comments on physical appearance - body parts, hair style, dress style, and pregnancy - can put women at a disadvantage. …