The Cognitive Foundations of Formal Equality: Incorporating Gender Schema Theory to Eliminate Sex Discrimination towards Women in the Legal Profession

By Woodington, Whitney | Law and Psychology Review, Annual 2010 | Go to article overview

The Cognitive Foundations of Formal Equality: Incorporating Gender Schema Theory to Eliminate Sex Discrimination towards Women in the Legal Profession


Woodington, Whitney, Law and Psychology Review


I. INTRODUCTION

Despite the progress women have made in the legal profession, (1) sex discrimination remains a substantial impediment to female advancement in this field. (2) Based on the findings of gender schema theory, one of the principal causes of this discrimination is the necessary role of stereotypes in normal cognitive processing. (3) To efficiently process information presented by their environments, people form cognitive knowledge structures called "schemas" that automatically categorize all related groups of information, including different groups of people. (4) The content of schemas is formed entirely from personal observation and experience, and once these structures are developed, all new information is processed according to its relation to schematic content. (5) Consequently, because gender stereotypes are still a prevalent, yet often implicit, component of most social environments, the resulting gender dichotomies become heavily integrated into general cognitive processing and thereby influence personal evaluations and perceptions of both others and ourselves. (6) One of the more predominant forms of these stereotypes is gender role stereotypes, which are also a primary mechanism for reinforcing sex discrimination towards women in the legal profession due to their basis in the social roles traditionally occupied by women and men. (7)

This note will examine the reciprocal social and cognitive influences of gender role stereotypes on sex discrimination towards women in the legal profession and propose a solution to eliminate this continuing social problem. This note begins by examining the function of stereotypes in cognitive processing, their role in shaping social structure, and methods for overcoming the reciprocal influences of these processes. The note then narrows its scope to gender role stereotypes, examining both their social and cognitive influences, the resulting biases towards women in the legal profession, and how gender schema theory explains these problems. The following section uses current gender differentials in salary and promotion to illustrate why both cognitive and social aspects of gender role stereotypes must be taken into account in evaluating current sex discrimination towards women in the legal profession. The note then discusses formal equality through its relation to gender schema theory, highlights the benefits of formal equality's focus on individual qualifications, and responds to potential criticisms. Finally, this note proposes that incorporating the cognitive principles of gender schema theory into formal equality and applying the resulting theory to the workplace is a crucial step for actualizing gender equality in the legal profession.

II. THE COGNITIVE AND SOCIAL FUNCTIONS OF STEREOTYPES

Stereotypes are overly broad generalizations of an individual's qualifications, behaviors, and personality traits based upon the social groups with which that individual is associated. (8) Due to its derogatory impact on minorities and other social groups, stereotyping is considered a practice of the ignorant and corrupt. However, multiple cognitive theories propose that stereotyping is a necessary function of normal cognitive processing. (9) Many of these theories are based on the premise that it is impossible for individuals to analyze every component (including people) of their constantly changing environments. (10) These theories propose that the formation of cognitive structures called schemas, which store generalizations of the individual traits commonly associated with different categories of information, allows people to intake larger quantities of information than they would normally be able to process. (11) All new information is automatically processed through its relation to these pre-existing categories, which enables people to quickly and efficiently evaluate their surrounding environments. (12) Accordingly, it seems that many forms of discrimination and prejudice could be alleviated by simply raising social awareness that stereotypes function as generalized, cognitive responses to aid in processing information and are often not the result of conscious observation. …

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