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Sep. 15 2009 - 10:27 am | 117 views | 1 recommendation | 7 comments

Judicial Gender Testing

US Supreme Court

Image by dbking via Flickr

What’s in a name? A study a few years back, “Why Susie sells seashells by the seashore: implicit egotism and major life decisions” (PDF), found that, for instance, people named Dennis were more likely to become dentists. The authors explain that “Because most people possess positive associations about themselves, most people prefer things that are connected to the self” — as in, to take one example, things that sound like their names. They call it “implicit egoism.” It’s a small effect, but real. And it reminds us that some truly odd things can affect even the most important decisions about our lives.

Of course, our names can also affect how other people perceive us. Thus the findings of a new study on female judges’ names. “Do Masculine Names Help Female Lawyers Become Judges? Evidence from South Carolina” finds that female judges with “masculine” names (such as Kelly or Cameron) are more likely to become judges — at least in South Carolina.

Here’s the abstract:

This paper provides the first empirical test of the Portia Hypothesis: Females with masculine monikers are more successful in legal careers. Utilizing South Carolina microdata, we look for correlation between an individual’s advancement to a judgeship and his/her name’s masculinity, which we construct from the joint empirical distribution of names and gender in the state’s entire population of registered voters. We find robust evidence that nominally masculine females are favored over other females. Hence, our results support the Portia Hypothesis.

The Portia Hypothesis is, of course, named for the Shakespeare character who disguises herself as a man to argue a court case.

So what accounts for the effect? A preliminary version of the paper (PDF) offers some theories:

A lawyer’s gender could explicitly matter for advancement to some decision makers; for example, some judicial positions are determined by popular election, and the electorate (or sufficiently large subset of it) could categorically prefer men to women. If nothing else were known about an individual besides that individual’s name, the name itself could contain information on the gender of the individual, just as a name contains information on the race of an individual (Fryer and Levitt, 2004). Just as with the racial discrimination on call-backs for resumes submitted in job applications, individuals may be more likely to get into the pool of candidates receiving serious consideration for the sorts of positions that lead to potential judgeships, i.e.getting their “foot in the door”, when they have a male moniker. Alternatively, nominal masculinity might matter when opinions are formed about a lawyer’s work, not face-to-face, but through the written word, such as through briefs or publications in law journals. If there is some gender bias in the citation process – that is, if authors are generally more likely to cite a writer with a masculine name than with a feminine name – then we might observe female lawyers with masculine names receiving more citations than female lawyers with femininenames, ceteris paribus, and having relatively fewer citations could affect career outcomes. The mechanism could be even subtler yet. There could be a subconscious preference for male names, even when the gender is known; jurists, clients, superiors, professors, legislators, etc., might just feel more comfortable with a woman called “George” than one called “Barbara”; in the context of the good old boy network, a woman with a male moniker might just feel more like “one of the boys”. Finally, it could just be that the parents who successfully nurture a girl’s ability are the same people who believe that bestowing a child with a masculine name would be advantageous in her future career path.

It all sounds pretty plausible, but the study is limited to demonstrating correlation. Also, fun fact: “The first Portia to be admitted to the South Carolina bar was Miss James (Jim) Margrave Perry in 1918.”

It’s worth noting, though, that this effect doesn’t seem to hold for the highest court in the land. Sonia, Ruth, and Sandra don’t sound particularly masculine to me.

HT: TaxProf Blog


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  1. collapse expand

    As you suggest, this study is all about correlation, not causation. I’m sure one could also conduct a study that showed that men with random, incorrectly used French articles in their names are more likely to thrive in athletic competition (“LeBron,” “LaDainian,” D’Brickashw,” ect …)

    Your name says far, far more about your parents than it says about you.

    • collapse expand

      Of course, there have also been studies of whether “black” names hold back job applicants. Despite conventional wisdom that they do, I remember in Freakonomics reading that the CW was wrong. (Don’t remember enough of the details off the top of my head to make any coherent argument of my own right now.)

      Still, law is a male-dominated field. That this sort of factor might exert an influence at the margins doesn’t seem implausible at all.

      If it’s about the parents, is there any reason to think better off parents are more likely to give a daughter a “boy’s” name? (there may be)

      In response to another comment. See in context »
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