Women Judges, Women’s Presence: How the Inclusion of Women Changes Things

Elena Kagan

A couple of days ago, I heard a fascinating story on NPR called, “How Women Changed the High Court…And Didn’t,” sparked by Elena Kagan’s nomination to be the next Supreme Court Justice.

There were a number of salient points, all worthy of discussion. For example, some have bemoaned the fact that Sotomayor and Kagan are unmarried and childless. But the story makes the point that power may be the ultimate aphrodisiac when men yield it, but when a woman is the solicitor general of the U.S., not too many men may be standing in line waiting to ask the woman out. (I’m a sucker for discussions about power dynamics between men and women.)

But the point I wanted to focus on was this: the reporter addresses the question of whether female judges judge differently than male judges. A study of more than 7000 decisions shows that men and women do not judge differently – except in one area: sex discrimination. Women judges are 10% more likely to rule in favor of the plaintiff.

Likewise, in three judge panels which contain at least one women, the men were 15% more likely to rule in favor of the sex discrimination plaintiff than on three judge panels which contain only men.

That last statistic was the most startling to me. A woman judge’s mere presence – just her presence – influences the male judges decisions in this area.

I couldn’t help but think about this in a Mormon administrative context. Would having one woman in the room during Church courts affect the ultimate decisions, at least in some situations? And by extension, would having one woman in the room during bishopric meetings sometimes affect decisions made about callings, talks, ward projects and goals, etc.?

I suspect it would. Which once again gives me that sinking  feeling I’m accustomed to feel whenever I think of those ubiquitous all male meetings which are so prevalent throughout all administrative levels of the church.

Caroline

Caroline is a PhD student in Women’s Studies in Religion and mother of three.

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17 Responses

  1. Craig says:

    It definitely would change the way men behave. The fact that men in the church never have to answer to women or even worry about what women think re: their leadership decisions does directly feed into the inherent sexism in the church. It reinforces the strict dualistic gender roles. Having women as co-authorities to men in leadership positions would hopefully lessen the assumption that there is 1 right way to do everything, and would help men in leadership to not take women for granted – just assuming they’re going to (and have to) agree with whatever the men decide. That is in fact one of the things that most bothers me about the church, that women don’t have a real voice, have no power, and are made to obey men and only men regardless of how ridiculous the rule/decision is because men have penises the priesthood.

  2. KimB says:

    I absolutely, whole-heartedly believe that having women in the now male-dominated church meetings would have profound impact on the decisions made. But, the reverse is also true. Men and women generally think differently and both can benefit from the insight from the other.

    For example, a few years back, wards boundaries were restructured near my area. Once they were done, they realized that the boundaries left one ward with 85+ children in the nursery with the next ward with very few nursery-aged children.

    Obviously, I am not privy to the details that were discussed, but heard that the deciding factor in these situations is the number of worthy priesthood holders. I strongly feel that if there had been strong women invited to the meetings, things may have turned out very differently.

  3. EmilyCC says:

    Caroline, I think this is a brilliant observation. My husband tells me that the tenor of Welfare Council is very different than at Priesthood Executive Council.

    I think KimB makes an excellent point, I suspect my primary presidency meetings would be very different if we had a man in our presidency.

    So, I can’t see why both the bishopric and the auxiliaries wouldn’t benefit from less gender separation (except of course, for those orgies that ensue when genders mix in a Church context 🙂 )

  4. el oso says:

    The obvious conclusion is that there should be some additional procedure to involve women at times when sex discrimination is a possibility in ‘important’ (bishopric or SP) decisions. This might take some serious CHI changes to implement.
    Other possible improvements would be to have the welfare council to supplant the PEC as the primary decision making body after the bishopric. On this, a general authority told us that it should be done by increasing the frequency of the welfare council meetings and decreasing the PEC meetings. It has been years since I have seen this done, though.

  5. Caroline says:

    Craig,
    I too feel that the exclusion of women from these decision making bodies is highly problematic. I found this following statement of yours interesting – it made me pause. “men in the church never have to answer to women or even worry about what women think re: their leadership decisions.”

    I agree with the thrust of your comment. Women have no hard power – they can never overrule the decisions of the men who are always above them. (One minor complication to this scheme, though, would be male primary teachers who have to answer to a female primary pres.) I do wonder though if the men in power do sometimes worry about what the women think — at least on a ward level. I can imagine a bishop not wanting to piss off a RS president. Though of course, that desire to not be too overbearing on a RS pres seldom translates to the bish actually including her in decision making processes…

    KimB, what a sad and telling story about that ward split. Making decisions like splits by solely focusing on what men are available is troubling. No wonder some Mormon women question whether they are valued in the Church. And I agree – I think that getting a woman in that meeting would have increased the chances that they would have considered how such a split might have affected other segments of the ward.

    Emily,
    “So, I can’t see why both the bishopric and the auxiliaries wouldn’t benefit from less gender separation (except of course, for those orgies that ensue when genders mix in a Church context )”

    Amen!!! And good point about the fear of orgies. I’ve never understood why most Mormons seem to not get hung up on the fear that they might not be able to keep their clothes on with the opposite sex in the workplace, but they do get hung up on this in a church context. A mystery.

    El oso,
    I like all those ideas. I’m all for supplanting PEC with Welfare in terms of importance and decision making. I’m also in favor of including at least one woman in every single bishopric meeting. A bishop’s secretary? The RS pres? I don’t care. I just want a woman there. As this NPR article alludes, a woman’s very presence might make the men a little more conscious of the need to take women’s interests into consideration.

  6. Emily U says:

    I agree you’ve made a really good observation, Caroline. I have no doubt you’re right that different decisions would be made were a woman to be present in these leadership meetings. The realization that my gender isn’t represented in the decision-making process really keeps me from fully committing my whole heart to the church. I take from it what I like, but always with the thought in the back of my mind that if I don’t agree with something, I’ll opt out of it rather than stay in and hope I get a testimony of it. I just don’t believe that every little thing that goes on there is inspired.

    I have to comment on Kagan, too. I have no problem with her, but I don’t think her presence is all that empowering to women, because she is such a non-typical woman. You could argue that no Supreme Court judge is a typical person – all are exceptionally successful in their profession. But in my experience if women are going to reach the upper echelons of their profession, they have to act like traditional men – men who have a wife to take care of absolutely everything at home.

    My Ph.D. adviser was a woman at the top of her field in plant genetics. Married, but no kids. The women in my current academic department are the same way. Kids are career-killing little bundles of joy for women in a way that they usually aren’t for men, so until our economy and culture can support women in through motherhood, keeping professional doors open to them while they temporarily reduce working hours to be with their babies, I can’t view women like my Ph.D. adviser and Elena Kagan as role models.

  7. CatherineWO says:

    Thanks for this post, Caroline. I read it and KimB’s comment about restructuring wards to my husband (a member of our stake presidency). Most of the church meetings he attends are men only, but he admitted that there is no reason why women couldn’t or shouldn’t be part of the decision-making process in many, many things. It just doesn’t occurr to the men to invite the women. I (not so gently) nudged him in that direction, for what it’s worth. I wish we didn’t have to wait to be “invited” though, that it was just a matter of course.

    I also agree with Emily…
    “until our economy and culture can support women in through motherhood, keeping professional doors open to them while they temporarily reduce working hours to be with their babies, I can’t view women like my Ph.D. adviser and Elena Kagan as role models.”

    But I’m old enough to remember when there were no women judges anywhere, so this is progress, albeit slow.

  8. Caroline says:

    Emily U
    “The realization that my gender isn’t represented in the decision-making process really keeps me from fully committing my whole heart to the church. I take from it what I like…”

    I feel the same. Well said.

    I think I do have a bit of a different take on Kagan and other professional non-mothers. I figure that women are pretty unique. Some probably feel called to be mothers, and others may feel called to devote their lives to serving their community through their professions. And still others may like to be mothers, but just have never found that right match for a mate. So, although I am ignorant of any tough personal calls she has had to make, I celebrate the accomplishments of women like Kagan. The closer we can get to having something close to 50% women on the high court, be they moms are not, the better in my book.

    I do absolutely agree, though, that our society should make it easier for professional women to have children by keeping doors open and reducing hours. I’m hoping that more and more companies will realize that that is the smartest and most profitable course.

    CatherineWO,
    I’m thrilled to hear about your discussion with your husband – and that he agrees that there’s no reason to not have a woman/women there. This statement was like a sucker punch: “It just doesn’t occurr to the men to invite the women.” Aggg! What can we do to get them to think about it? I’m so glad there are women like you out there that can talk to men and leadership and prod them into including women.

    On that subject, my husband goes to bishopric meetings. He has mentioned inviting a woman to all the meetings, perhaps in the form of a bishop’s secretary. But there seems to be reluctance there from people in the bishopric. I am guessing that they think that a woman there would change the tenor of the meetings. Maybe less jocularity? Maybe they just wouldn’t feel as comfortable? I don’t know — but those just aren’t good enough reasons for me.

  9. mb says:

    So there was a difference found in the judgement outcomes in sex discrimination cases, but not in any others?

    Not in child abuse cases?

    Not in cases of rape or incest?

    Not in cases of domestic violence?

    Interesting. I wonder why these other three issues that are high on many women’s advocates radar screens did not show similar influence.

    Any idea why?

    Is it because female jurists have more first hand experience with sex discrimination but very little first hand experience with the other three?

    Is it because the male jurists are leery of being thought of as sexist by their female counterparts when they listen to sex discrimination cases, but do not subconsciously fear that those female jurists might consider them guilty of abusing others in their personal lives when they listen to cases involving abuse, incest or rape?

    I wonder.

  10. Naismith says:

    But a major difference between how things are done in the church and how things are done in the boardroom or courtroom is that in the church, hopefully it is done by prayer and revelation, rather than simply relying on our own judgment. If the Lord’s will is being done, it really doesn’t matter if the person carrying it out is male or female.

    I am not sure if the different point of view between men and women is as great as the differences among women.

    A few months ago, I complained to my bishop about a local decision I didn’t like, and asked if the decision was made at PEC, in the absence of women? He replied that it was at PEC, but there were women there. Since this decision that affected the entire ward was being considered, the RS president and activities committee were there, including women. Their opinions were considered and adopted. I just didn’t agree with them!

    My stake has undergone several reorganizations, and in each case a committee was appointed to provide input. Several women served on the committee.

  11. Dora says:

    Excellent post, Caroline! I do think that actually interacting with others, as opposed to being in the same space and tolerating each other, changes how we view people, and our ability to at least consider their point of view.

    As a good friend is fond of saying, the church is truer in some stakes than it is in others. Yes, Naismith seems to be fortunate enough to live in a stake where the priesthood leaders think to include female women in the decision making process. However, in CatherineWO’s stake, women are included at the whim of the presiding leader. So, the opportunity for women to be included depends on how enlightened the local leadership is. How lucky for some. How unlucky for others.

  12. Ziff says:

    Great thinking, Caroline! On one hand, this irritates me because it’s just another way the Church carefully excludes women’s voices. But in another, I find it encouraging that even the presence of one woman on the three judge panel made a difference. As you and other commenters have suggested, this would lead one to possibly believe that just getting women into meetings where decisions are made in the Church might change things for the better. This is encouraging in particular because it wouldn’t require lots of changes like ordaining women (which I would love to see, but is probably a ways off). It could happen tomorrow.

    in the church, hopefully it is done by prayer and revelation, rather than simply relying on our own judgment. If the Lord’s will is being done, it really doesn’t matter if the person carrying it out is male or female.

    Naismith, this is a nice idea in theory, but as long as it’s fallible humans and not perfected angels implementing what they think is God’s will, I think it will clearly make a difference if Church councils are all male or male and female.

  13. Caroline says:

    Good questions, mb.

    I think this supposition of yours may have something to do with it. “Is it because female jurists have more first hand experience with sex discrimination but very little first hand experience with the other three?”

    Naismith,
    I think Ziff brought up a great point. As long as we’re working with humans, we’ll also be working with their baggage, their cultural assumptions, and their blind spots. I think that God’s inspiration can cut through some of that at times, but I suspect that there are many more times when it doesn’t. In which case, I’d be more comfortable having a woman in the meetings, who might be able to articulate another viewpoint or offer suggestions not thought of before.

    My husband has a slightly different take on this. He thinks that for most decisions that are made in bishopric meetings, there are 5 or 6 possible outcomes that God is perfectly ok with. However, he thinks that there might be some that God is more ok with than others, and having a woman in the meeting might help the bishop hit on that most preferred one more often. He’s of the camp that believes that more information equals better inspiration.

    Amen, Dora. I happen to live in a ward in which women were not included in PEC meetings. Now there’s a new thing where PEC has been eliminated, and it’s a smaller ward council type thing. (Yay!)

    Ziff,
    ” this would lead one to possibly believe that just getting women into meetings where decisions are made in the Church might change things for the better. This is encouraging in particular because it wouldn’t require lots of changes like ordaining women ”

    I hadn’t articulated this to myself, but you’re right. It would be so easy to change a policy that no bishopric meeting should occur without a woman there. And there’d be little pushback, I imagine. Maybe we’re on that road with the elimination of PEC meetings in CA…?

  14. Aimee says:

    LOVE this post, Caroline! The best ward I ever attended had an unofficial female member of the bishopric who coordinated Sacrament meetings and attended all bishopric meetings except those involving disciplinary councils. As my husband was a member of that bishopric for two years, I got to hear first hand about how the presence of a woman had precisely the the kind of influence you described in your post. It’s not as good as having authority, but having the influence of women in meetings where decisions are made that will affect their worship is an obvious first step toward women being treated more equally in the Church. Thanks for this!!

  15. Naismith says:

    Basically, I don’t disagree with the post much. I do believe in women being involved. But I do have some quibbles:

    “As long as we’re working with humans, we’ll also be working with their baggage, their cultural assumptions, and their blind spots.”

    I see this to some extent, but at the same time I don’t think we should underestimate the stark difference in purpose and power between a business or a court vs. the church. I don’t think the church is NEAR as susceptible to such forces, because of the power of revelation, if leaders are spending the time on their knees that they should. I support informed revelation, but please let’s not pretend that the church is just another business.

    Also, and this goes back to the original essay on how most things are the same whether male or female, please note that if I had blogged my complaint instead of addressing it with the bishop, I would not have known that women were, in fact, involved in that decision. I wonder how often we complain about such things when women really *were* involved?

    And this brings us to the fact that merely having a uterus does not make one think the same way we do. We have to accept that sometimes people do things that don’t make sense, even if women were involved.

    And men who are not currently in leadership have the same issues.

  16. Kelly Ann says:

    Caroline, thank you for this discussion. There is no doubt in my mind that I want women in all the meetings of the church. But I don’t just want them in the room – I want them to be the ones making the decisions at times. Better said, I wish men actually had to answer to them.

    I grew up with the mentality that women and men were different and needed to be separate for some things in church. As I have visited other churches and have seen a mixed clergy in some congregations, I know longer believe this to be true. They work perfectly fine together. And the men don’t have any problem answering to the women who really feel that they are called to those leadership positions. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think women should be solely in charge. I just think the power balance needs to be equal.

    That’s my take anyhow. Sorry for the rant.

  17. Rachel says:

    “Just her presence.” This is both amazing and insightful. Thank you.

    As a missionary I attended ward meetings, Including PEC, even though I was a female. There were wards that fought it, and felt like it was not appropriate for sister missionaries to be present, but my Mission President fought for our right to be there (as surely as the Elders), and other wards embraced us warmly. I wonder now if we made a difference being there, Because we were females. I certainly hope so, and think it should not be the rare, fought for anomaly, but that it should be accepted to have women present.

    This seems even more apparent when you do consider disciplinary meetings or even confessional meetings. I believe the latter would increase feelings of safety and trust, especially when a woman is expected to confess sexual transgressions to an often older man.

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