Women: More Judicially Ambitious than Men

by Angela N. Johnson

According to Margaret Williams, women are actually more judicially ambitious than men; yet comprise only 20% of the state-level judiciary.

Photo Courtesy: Fotosearch

Margaret S. Williams’ Ambition, Gender, and the Judiciary examines and compares women’s ambitions to run for political office versus ambitions to run for judicial office. Her examination is conducted by surveying attorneys in the state of Texas and specifically, individual-level characteristics that affect ambition.  To do this, she was supplied two random samples of attorneys (one male, one female) from a list provided by the State Bar of Texas. Interestingly, both groups were equally as ambitious to complete the survey; the response rate of both groups was 36% (Williams 70).  Texas was chosen because “there are more than 500 judgeships on state district and appellate courts in the state.  As past studies suggest, the more opportunities there are for people to hold a position, the more they express ambition.  As the number of seats increase, the prestige of the court decreases, also making it easier for women to attain seats on the judiciary” (Williams 71).  Additionally, the fact that Texas elects its judges in the same manner it elects its legislature provides ease in comparison.  Williams measured ambition as anyone responding to the survey who indicated that “she or he considered running for judge, or actually ran for judge but did not win, was coded as having ambition for the judiciary” (no judges were included in the survey) (Williams 71).  Williams’ comparison to other political offices are derived from studies conducted by other political scientists on women’s ambition to run for political office (non judicial), most commonly from Jennifer Lawless and Richard Fox’s 2005 article, “It Takes a Candidate: Why Women Don’t Run for Office.”  Williams explains that the position of judge is unique in that standard prerequisites are common knowledge (juris doctorate degree, bar admission, years experience working as a trial attorney). Running for political office, on the other hand, comes with vague qualifications which can leave women wondering whether they are qualified and whether they will succeed.  Additionally, women seeking political office often look for open seat elections or other rare opportunities to run. Williams additionally argues that women are less encouraged and familiar with the inner workings of political office than are lawyers about what a judge does. For lawyers, and trial lawyers especially, dealing with judges is automatic – that exposure can encourage women lawyers to seek a judgeship. In other words “women may feel more qualified to serve on the judiciary than they do to serve in other offices” (Williams 68).  Moreover, a judgeship can be seen as a positive alternative to other prestigious law jobs like high profile firm work, in which women are plagued by billable hours and limited advancement in the legal profession; not to mention, the glass ceiling, competition, and the likelihood of family plans thwarting partnership track success.  Judgeships on the other hand offer competitive salaries with consistent work hours and greater flexibility.  Additionally, there appears to be “greater advancement [in judgeships] than women find in the legal profession.  Women are 22 percent of state judges but 11 percent of partners in prestigious law firms” (Williams 68).

According to Williams, “In 2005, women were 16 percent of state governors, 10 percent of state attorneys general, 22.5 percent of state legislators and 22 percent of state judges” (Williams 68). Williams notes that with other political offices, women have a tendency to down-weigh their chances of electoral success and place greater concern of their responsibilities to their family.  Moreover, “Women are also more likely to report feeling under-qualified for office and were less likely to be recruited by party leaders to run than their male counterparts” (Williams 68). 

As for partisan judicial elections, women fear lack of political experience on running a successful campaign and giving up the security of private practice to campaign for judicial office every six years (Williams 69-70). Being recruited by party leaders for office will impact a woman’s ambition to run but in quoting Lawless and Fox’s 2005 article, women feel more negatively about campaigning, driving down their ambition for office.  In partisan elections, ideology and party identity play a role in ambition to run for judicial office; as does geography.  Williams gives the example of a liberal or democrat women being less likely to express ambition for judicial office in say, Texas, giving the state’s conservative political culture. Partisan elections are extremely expensive and popular disdain within the legal community over judges becoming political beings may prevent well-qualified candidates from seeking a seat on the bench.   The alternative to partisan elections, merit selection “may also be more attractive to a potential candidate because such methods require the candidate to be well known to a more specialized audience than general elections (partisan or nonpartisan) require” (Williams 71). 

According to Williams, personal characteristics of an individual considering a judicial career play an enormous role in one’s ambition to seek that position.  Women with children, especially young children and certainly if they are the primary caregiver may have less ambition “even if they were to find judicial office more attractive than a position in the state legislature . . . if they are married, women may give greater weight to their responsibilities in the home” (Williams 70). 

So, are women less or more ambitious to run for judicial office than men?  Of the 68 people expressing ambition for office (of the 285 who responded to the survey), 38 were men and 30 were women.  Williams next examines the causes of ambition.  Professionally, “only satisfaction with one’s current firm affects ambition; those who are more dissatisfied with their current firm are more likely to express ambition for the judiciary than those satisfied;” Politically, “being encouraged to run for the judiciary, one’s political affiliation, and feelings about campaign activities also affect ambition” (Williams 73).  Not surprisingly, women respondents who believed there were barriers to women’s participation in the legal field were also less likely to express judicial ambition.  Though according to Williams’ study, personal characteristics, including gender, were not significantly related to ambition. She believes this is due to the socialization of women in the profession.  Additionally, when examining baseline estimates, Williams’ discovered that women are actually more ambitious than their male counterparts.  “While men only have a 1 percent probability of expressing ambition, women have a 4 percent probability” and when women become dissatisfied with their current firm, the probability for judicial ambition raises to 5 percent (Williams 73). Political experience, not surprisingly, increases ambition; “Women who ran for a prior office have a 32 percent likelihood of expressing ambition, a 28 percent increase over those with no prior electoral experience” (Williams 74).  According to Williams, “the most interesting of all the findings is that perceptual barriers create one of the biggest differences by gender.  Men are more likely to express ambition when they see women facing barriers to the judiciary than when they do not, and women are less likely to express ambition when they see the same barriers.  In fact, it is only after considering professional barriers for women that men appear to be more ambitious than their female counterparts” (Williams 75). In conclusion, Williams discovers that when compared to women’s ambition to run for nonjudicial political offices, women are actually more ambitious to seek a judgeship. However, it is the perception of barriers that keep women from pursuing their ambitions. One way to remove these barriers is to utilize a different method of selecting judges such as “merit selection, that involves ties to the profession and not ties to a specific area, may make the judiciary an even more attractive career path for women” (Williams 75).

Source Citation: Williams, Margaret S. “Ambition, Gender, and the Judiciary.” Political Research Quarterly (2008): 68-78.


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