For the past seven years, political scientist Alice Kang has been tracking when and how women broke the glass ceiling to be appointed to the highest courts in democratic countries.
Kang, associate professor of political science and ethnic studies at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, teamed up with researchers from Texas A&M University and Arizona State University to research and build a database of judicial appointments of women to courts equivalent to the U.S. Supreme Court in both developing and stable democracies. The scholars also looked at the political factors that preceded the first appointments of these female judges.
In a recently published study of 159 high courts in 124 countries over four decades — from 1970 to 2013 — Kang and her co-authors found that women often were appointed to high courts when the country was being influenced by the changing norms of nearby countries.
“You can see change on really powerful bodies if it’s happening in other places,” Kang said. “If you see it happening in other places, those ideas can spread internationally. Not just in terms of policies, but in terms of who governs. If your neighbor to the south or north has women on their high court, it makes it seem more possible to have women, even when for centuries or decades, appointments were all previously men.”
The research also found that the percentage of women gaining education and working in the fields that traditionally serve as springboards to judicial appointments was a predictor of a country appointing its first female judge to a high court.
Kang’s study is one of the first to examine appointments of women with an international scope.
“Most scholarship that exists on women judges focuses on countries in the Global North. We have a really rich literature on the United States, and there’s more and more studies on Germany and France,” Kang said. “One thing that scholars focus on in the Global North is whether the person choosing the judge is an elected or appointed official, because an elected official may feel more pressure to appoint a woman.
“In the Global South, that matters less, and other factors are more important. For example, we find that if you create a court from scratch, it’s likely that there will be at least one woman appointed to that court.”
Prior to performing this research, no comprehensive international database existed to show when and why women were elevated to high courts. A grant from the National Science Foundation made the work possible. The scholars collected information through a variety of sources — government websites, correspondence with ministry and court officials, newspapers and secondary sources.
“My colleagues and I all have background in studying women in politics, but there has not been a lot of historical or comparative work done on women judges,” Kang said. “When we began looking into it, we saw a big gap in terms of comparative information, and we wanted to compile a global data set.
“We talked with the International Association of Women judges, which is based in Washington, D.C., and is an international network of women on high courts and women judges around the world. They don’t have this information because it’s really hard to collect, and nobody’s compiled it, so that became our mission, to compile this global data set and history of women on high courts.”
The information is important, Kang said, to monitor human rights issues, and specifically women’s rights, internationally.
Through the grant, the complete database developed by the researchers will be readily available on a website, and the co-authors are examining the data more comprehensively for a forthcoming book.
“Our grant requires that our data be made public and readily accessible, so we have a website that we’re working on,” Kang said. “We are in the process of building that and hoping to have it up this summer. Ideally, when the book comes out, the website is there so that students and scholars who are interested can look at the data and find new questions to ask.”
The article was published in the Journal of Politics and was co-authored by Maria C. Escobar-Lemmon of Texas A&M and Valerie Hoekstra and Miki Caul Kittilson of Arizona State University.