Women in the Law

Female Lawyers with Masculine Names May Have a Better Shot at Judgeships

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Women lawyers with masculine-sounding first names have better odds of becoming a judge than their counterparts with feminine names, at least in South Carolina, according to a study by two economics researchers.

The study finds that changing a woman’s name from something feminine, such as Sue, to a gender-ambiguous name such as Kelly increased the odds of becoming a South Carolina judge by about 5 percent, the Vancouver Sun reports. Changing the name Sue to a predominantly male name such as Cameron tripled the odds of becoming a judge, and changing it to Bruce increased the odds by a factor of five.

The researchers suggest the reason for the odds may be the “Portia hypothesis,” named for the Shakespeare character who disguises herself as a man to argue a court case, according to excerpts of the study posted by the Situationist. The theory holds that those females with male-sounding names are more successful in legal careers than females with feminine-sounding names.

“When we see a masculine name, something in our subconscious is cued,” said one of the study authors, economics professor Bentley Coffey of Clemson University in South Carolina. “There seems to be a subtle sexist notion, even if it’s not gender discrimination per se,” he told the Vancouver Sun.

Coffey told the Sun that he and his wife, a lawyer, were so swayed by the study findings that they named their daughter Collins.

Coffey and research fellow Patrick McLaughlin of George Mason University put together their list of masculine-sounding female names by examining South Carolina voter records. The records showed how often a name was exclusively male and how often it was assigned to both genders, according to a preliminary copy of the study (PDF) posted by the Situationist. The researchers looked at websites and interviewed law clerks to determine which South Carolina judges are female.

Besides Bruce, Kelly and Cameron, male-sounding first names of South Carolina judges included Barney, Dale, Leslie, Jan and Rudell.

The study, published in American Law and Economics Review, is called “Do Masculine Names Help Female Lawyers Become Judges? Evidence from South Carolina.” As of November 2007, South Carolina had 156 male judges and 52 female judges, the study says.

Legal Blog Watch points out that the theory doesn’t appear to hold true for the U.S. Supreme Court. Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor and retired Justice Sandra Day O’Connor all have feminine-sounding names.

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