Sunday, January 22, 2012

Does gender matter?

With the current focus in Israel on women in the public sphere, the January lecture at the Netanya Academic College in the series sponsored by AACI-Netanya was topical and entitled "Is there gender bias in the Israeli courts?" given by Rochelle Don-Yehiye, a lawyer. She was born in the US and grew up in Long Beach, NY. She made aliyah in 1969 and studied law at Tel Aviv University. She lectured for 8 years at Bar-Ilan University on Labor Law. As a commercial lawyer she specializes in mediation between companies and couples. She is also on the Management Committee of the Israel Women's Organization and for12 years she has been on the Directorate of the Israel Electric Company and for the past 2 years she has also been on the Directorate of the Channel Two media company. With her co-author Rina Bogoch she co-authored a study published (in Hebrew) in 2000 entitled "Is there gender bias in the Israeli courts?"

There is gender bias all over the world, so why should Israel be any different? Research in all western countries, US, Canada, Europe, shows that husbands who murder their wives receive on average lower sentences than wives who murder their husbands. They set out to answer the question "does gender matter in the Israeli court system?" At first they interviewed Chief Justice of the Supreme Court Shamgar and he said that they would have to prove their contention, so they set out on one of the most detailed such studies ever done that was funded by the Ford Foundation.

In their study they did not rely on questionnaires but used the actual transcripts of trials to compare the results for all cases of violence resulting in a sentence of 5 years or more from 1993-1998. They looked at the effect of the gender of the perpetrator, of the judge and of both prosecuting and defence attorneys. There were fewer cases of serious female violence so the statistics may not be significant in those cases, but they found that if the victim was male ca. 78% of women were convicted and 98% of men while if the victim was female only 6% of women and 26% of men were convicted and on average the sentence was 129 months if the victim was a woman and 165 months if a man. These results indicate that there is a complex gender bias in convictions and sentences.

There were also cases of indirect bias, resulting if the victim and perpetrator knew each other or not. This was sometimes considered to be a mitigating circumstance, however there was great difference between men and women. Of women only 10% were attacked by strangers, while for men the figure was 60% attacked by strangers. Clearly the most dangerous place for women is the home.

They considered what happens in the courtroom, and found that women lawyers are interrupted more and the judgements were less favorable for a female compared to a male lawyer. For comparable cases, a woman prosecutor got on average 37 months sentence while a male prosecutor got 40 months, then as defender the figures were 53 vs. 34 months, quite a big difference (so it pays to have a male defending attorney). They found that the Judges addressed the male and female lawyers differently, showing more deference to the men. In Israel there is no jury system, most courts have one or three judges. When a woman is judging alone she tends to be more lenient than when she is judging with two other men judges.

But, in cases of rape the idea that women judges would be more understanding to the victim does not hold. In comparable cases the average sentence for rape by a female judge was 10 months and for a male judge was 20 months. Psychologically the female judges appear to over-compensate, perhaps to avoid the appearance of gender bias. In regular crimes of violence the sentences are reversed, male judges gave on average 23 months to men and 17 months to females, while female judges gave only 10 or 11 months, so here the female judges are more lenient.

Inside the courtroom they found that in the results of rape cases Judges appeared to have a stereotypical prototype rape case in their minds, i.e. that of a young (virgin) female attacked by a stranger, while actually most cases of rape were "date rape" or rape between people who knew each other. Often the woman was older and dressed what was considered to be provocatively. For example, the lifestyle of the female victim was mentiond 364 times, and in those cases while the district court often found the man not guilty that was usually reversed on appeal to the Supreme Court.

This study confirmed many cases of gender bias in the Israeli court system and its results were used to "educate" lawyers and judges in order to avoid many instances of "unconscious" bias. Certainly the situation is better now than when the study was published 12 years ago, and recently The Israel Project published an article entitled "Women now a majority in the Israeli Justice System."


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