Women as Expert Witnesses: The good, the sad, and the ugly
Female attorneys know they a special challenge to being accepted as authoritative, just because they are women. Looks like things are about the same for expert witnesses who are women. A new literature review just published by Tess M.S. Neal in Behavioral Sciences and the Law offers a succinct picture of what the research has found over the years. This is an article well worth reading and we are only going to cover the main effect summary findings. There are few rays of sunshine in this research but it’s important information to know (and we bet Tess Neal will be around doing good work for some time to come).
Neal first discusses stereotypes and gender roles and looking at the historical (and unfortunately current) reality that men are expected to be leaders and logical while women are expected to be more emotional followers. Research as recent as 2009 shows we still value what we continue to define as masculine characteristics (e.g., competence, assertion, rationality) above those characteristics defined as feminine (e.g., warmth and expressiveness).
She reviews research findings on the gender of experts, finding women experts twice as likely as men to believe gender is a factor in the selection of an expert witness. Women experts report being sometimes told explicitly that the hiring attorney thought their gender would help the case (e.g., being a female expert in a sexual harassment or sexual assault case). Another study found 55% of female attorneys but only 13% of male attorneys thought judges assigned more credibility to male experts than to female experts. A 1994 study showed women made up only 11% of experts identified in written court opinions, and testifying in 21% of cases overall. The good news was the number increased over time (and Neal points out that trend has likely continued since 1994). And then she summarizes the research on the gender of the expert witness. Here are the highlights of only the main effects findings:
Male experts are rated as more likable, believable, trustworthy, confident, and credible than female experts in a 2010 study. (Yes. 2010–aka, yesterday.)
Expert gender (when the expert was an automotive engineer) made no difference in terms of verdict in a civil case involving an auto accident. However, female experts elicited higher compensatory damages than did the male experts in a 2002 study.
A 1984 study tentatively suggested that female experts might be preferred over male experts when the testimony concerned opinions about child custody. The researchers think research participants could think (due to gender role stereotypes) that women would be better judges of what children need than would men.
There is much more covered in this article. Neal examines the importance of context (what is the gender “domain” of the case, how complex is the information the expert must convey, when is the expert giving testimony in the overall case presentation, and will the experts violate expectations for behavior of men or women). The author of the 1994 study cited earlier observed that women were more likely to be testifying in disputes that had a “human” face–like education, family court or social services. Women accounted for only 4% of experts in corporate cases and 0% of those in contract disputes (again, in 1994). However, the traditional division of labor still seems to be in force in the more recent research Neal reviews.
Finally, she makes recommendations for both experts and attorneys hiring experts, based on the findings in the literature.
Consider if the case revolves around a traditionally male or traditionally female domain. Either gender may have an edge if the conflict is in their domain.
Consider whether the testimony is complex, because jurors may grant men an advantage. When testimony is not complex, women may have an advantage.
Competence is important for both men and women witnesses, but paying attention to gender role expectations may also matter. A 2008 study showed male witnesses were seen as more credible if they maintained high levels of eye contact with the questioner (“assertive eye contact”) but women’s eye contact with the questioner did not matter in terms of their credibility.
Being likable is more important for women experts than for men (according to 2009 and 2012 findings). She recommends the use of informal speech, explaining key terms, using the Plaintiff or Defendant’s name rather than referring to them as either the plaintiff or the defendant, among other things.
Overall, Neal says there are indeed gender differences in how male and female experts are perceived but those differences tend to be relatively small and largely determined by context. So, a little good news and a fair amount of what female expert witnesses likely already knew. Times are changing, albeit slowly. What was a major obstacle documented in 1994 now appears to be a lower barrier.
Neal TMS (2014). Women as Expert Witnesses: A Review of the Literature. Behavioral Sciences & the Law PMID: 24623554