How Gender Bias Punishes Powerful Female Attorneys

Lady Justice is sick of this double-standard BS. travelview/Shutterstock

It’s 2018. Women outnumber men at universities across the US, Europe, and beyond, increasing numbers of women are blazing into traditionally male-dominated career fields, and the #MeToo movement has set a precedent for toppling abusive power players and opening a dialogue about women’s disenfranchisement.  

And yet, as indicated by a new study from psychologists at Arizona State University, gender bias – both conscious and unconscious – continues to hinder professional women who come off as too bold or emotional.


Their upsetting but wholly unsurprising investigation, set to be published in the journal Law and Human Behavior, has found that male attorneys who express strong emotions are seen as commanding and skilled, yet female lawyers who do the same are criticized for being shrill and obnoxious.

"A good attorney is expected to show traditionally male characteristics in court – anger, aggression, power. But what's happening is that men benefit from this, while we are penalizing women for showing these same characteristics," lead author Professor Jessica Salerno stated.

"We watch so many courtroom dramas where lawyers are expressing emotion, and there are fireworks in the courtroom. People expect attorneys to express themselves this way. This expectation sets men up well for success, but for women it backfires."

To assess gender bias of emotion in the courtroom, Salerno and her co-authors recruited six experienced attorneys – three male and three female – and recorded videos of each reciting the same closing statement with a neutral tone, then again with an angry tone (complete with an emphatic fist pounding on the lectern). The statement itself was a transcript of a closing statement from a real murder case wherein a woman was stabbed to death in front of her 1-year-old son – a scenario in which a lawyer is expected to give an impassioned performance.


A total of 687 college students and community member volunteers across three groups were then randomly assigned to watch one of the 12 videos, report their impressions of that attorney, and state whether or not they would hire them. A significant proportion of participants in all groups said that the emotionally charged male attorneys demonstrated “positive aspects of anger” that made them desirable as a lawyer, such as conviction. The female lawyers’ angry performances were rated negatively, as described above, and participants stated they did not appear to be a good hire.

Further analysis of the responses revealed that the female attorneys were seen as less effective when exuding an angry tone, compared to neutral, but the opposite was true for the men.

“Attorneys are advised to gain credibility with juries by demonstrating conviction through anger expression,” the authors wrote. “Women might not be able to harness the persuasive power of expressing anger in the courtroom, which might prevent female attorneys from advancing in their careers.”

Because these results were seen in male and female participants, the authors conclude that the disdain against women expressing strong emotion exists outright and on a subliminal level.  


"We all grow up in the same culture," Salerno said. "We are exposed to the same gender stereotypes. In the long term, this means that female attorneys may not be able to demonstrate the conviction and power people expect from men. This has unfortunate long-term implications for their careers and effectiveness with juries."