In Bogotá, Colombia on February 20, the American Bar Association Rule of Law Initiative (ABA ROLI), Los Andes University’ Faculty of Law, and Socio-Legal Research Centre (CIJUS for its acronym in Spanish), hosted a seminar centered on the theme of ‘Women in the Judiciary’ to discuss the role, importance, and challenges women face in the legal profession, with a special focus on the Judiciary. The panel discussion was moderated by ABA ROLI’s Vice Board Chair, the Honorable (Hon.) M. Margaret McKeown, Senior Judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, with the participation of Natalia Ángel, Magistrate of the Colombian Constitutional Court; Ana María Muñoz; Magistrate of the Supreme Court of Justice; Gloria Stella López, Magistrate of the Superior Council of Justice; and Alejandro Linares, Magistrate of the Colombian Constitutional Court, as panelists.
Following the insightful questions raised by Hon. McKeown, the Colombian magistrates discussed the role and common challenges that women face pursuing leadership positions in the legal profession, the impact of their work, and shared advice for women lawyers who aspire to achieve a high-level position in the judicial system. According to the magistrates, the role of women in the judiciary has been significant, particularly in decision-making positions. Women have the ability to bring a different perspective and diverse reasoning to the bench, a powerful capacity which can shift gender stereotypes, thereby changing attitudes and perceptions about traditionally accepted gender roles between men and women. Furthermore, the magistrates agreed that the full participation of women in the judiciary also plays a significant role in promoting gender equality in broader cases pertaining to the recognition and protection of women’s equality, gender-based violence, family law, and labor rights, among others. The panelists highlighted the importance of promoting women’s participation in decision-making positions in the judiciary system to enable a better response to diverse social and individual contexts and experiences.
“It is difficult, but not impossible, all women lawyers should be encouraged to pursue their dreams and play a fundamental role in the judiciary.” - Natalia Ángel, Magistrate of Colombian Constitutional Court
Regarding the challenges, the magistrates agreed that a longstanding obstacle to equal opportunity is how female attorneys often do not receive the same presumption of competence, assertiveness, or commitment as their male counterparts. In Colombia, the legal profession has traditionally been a practice made for men, perpetuating a gender bias and antiquated beliefs about gender roles. Some barriers have been coming down progressively and women have been moving up gradually, however, women remain underrepresented at the highest-level positions of the judiciary system and overrepresented at the lowest.
Some of the women magistrates agreed that the worst situation they experienced while pursuing their magistrate position was the requirement to present themselves to the Congress. In Colombia, the legislative body is the entity capable of determining the magistrate position within the Courts. Consequently, the women magistrates shared their experience dealing with a variety of disrespectful treatments, including sexist and infantilizing comments. Moreover, the traditional exclusion of women from the judiciary has had a negative impact on the self-perception of young women lawyers who want to become magistrates. These experiences have led some women to quit the application process for the magistrate position because they doubt their capacities, regardless of their qualifications. However, the panel of magistrates emphasized that doubts based on societal norms surrounding gender cannot be a reason to withdraw their dreams to achieve a position in the judiciary. In contrast, it should be a reason to keep trying and persist.
“As a woman, we are not perfect, but we have the power to create a disruption in the male-dominant system and engage in new discussions or enrich old ones.” - Ana María Muñoz, Magistrate of Colombian Justice Supreme Court
In the United States and Colombia, the representation of women in the judiciary has increased substantially over the past decade, possibly due to the implementation of the meritocracy system in the judiciary profession. Despite this, the system often can be used as a convenient excuse for the underrepresentation of women in decision-making positions. While affirmative action initiatives and enforced gender quotas seem to be a positive mechanism to increase the percentage of women in the judiciary, they can simultaneously perpetuate traditional misconceptions about women's lack of the necessary qualifications and commitment for the high-level positions.
The Hon. McKeown asked the panel their views on the impact of women working in the judiciary profession, as women lawyers tend to offer a unique gender perspective in their judgements. According to the magistrates, women tend to have greater empathy and people skills due to gender-based experiences and expectations in professional lives. The panel agreed that when women can acquire a decision-making position in the judiciary system, they are able to enrich and encourage fundamental reforms on issues such as sexual and reproductive rights, sexual harassment, family leaves, child support, gender bias, and mentoring programs, among other diversity initiatives.
“In the last five years, more women than men are graduating from law school, which is a positive indicator. However, women are the most likely to fail the judicial branch exams. As legal professionals, we must be aware of the seemingly invisible structural barriers that affect women's performance in the legal profession.” - Alejandro Linares, Magistrate of Colombian Constitutional Court
The magistrates stressed that race and ethnicity still represent one of the most significant challenges in the judiciary system. Indeed, women face different barriers in the legal profession due to their gender, however, women who identify with traditionally marginalized races and ethnicities rarely hold high-level positions. Hence, the magistrates were emphatic that real change begins when legal faculties and students understand that diversity is critical to the legitimacy, credibility, and quality of the judiciary system. In fact, it is necessary to promote classroom exchanges between people from different cultures and backgrounds, among other intersections of identity, because promoting diversity within the legal profession can be incredibly valuable in creating a more equitable society in which everyone has an equal opportunity to succeed.
Based on questions raised by the audience, the magistrates underlined the importance of talking about the structural barriers in society women must deal with every day. For instance, even though women empower themselves to be present in a male-dominant profession such as the legal arena, why do women hold so few decision-making positions in the judiciary? The Constitutional Court Magistrate Alejandro Linares stated that the answer can be related to the fact that women bear disproportionate burdens, like family-care responsibilities, that carry a cost when pitted against substantial obligations in research, studies, teaching, and committees. Although work schedules in law school generally permit more flexibility than those in legal practice, performance pressures and time demands in professional roles can be even more unbounded. Thus, the women magistrates emphasized the importance of law schools and the judicial system in addressing these issues more effectively by ensuring a standing committee on gender equality in the judicial nomination, election, evaluation, and disciplinary processes, as well as codes of conduct for judges, court personnel, and lawyers to address gender bias with specificity, among others.
“I think it is important for all women to pull each other up and build sisterhood bonds to support each other rather than tearing us down.” - Gloria Stella López, Magistrate of the Colombian Superior Council of Justice
It is crucial to include male attorneys, judges, and court personnel in the gender bias discussion in order to collectively progress in the development and representation of the legal profession. Some men tend to perpetuate sexist practices without intending to do so. However, they can offend and seriously affect the well-being and dignity of women. Therefore, it is necessary to continue promoting seminars between magistrates of the courts, professors, and international cooperation organizations that enable an inclusive gender dialogue between male and female attorneys, and other spheres of society, to enhance the awareness of the challenges created by gender bias and bring an end to the cycle of perpetuating harmful and outdated stigmas in an ever-changing world.
Learn more about ABA ROLI’s work across Latin America and the Caribbean.
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