The Feminization of Judges in China

There is an interesting phenomenon taking place in China right now; while most Chinese law firms are filled with male Chinese lawyers, there is a significant portion of female judges in the Chinese judicial system. This is a huge turnaround from the 1980s, when only men dominated the judicial system both in the private and the public sectors. Prof. Sida Liu highlighted this as the basis for his recent research on the feminization of judges in China. What explains the career mobility of men and women in the legal profession in China? Do women have the ability to ascend to high-level leadership positions in the Chinese judicial system even though it is highly dominated by men?

In providing some statistical information as background for his talk, Prof. Liu contrasted between female judges and lawyers. In 2007, female lawyers accounted for less than 20% of the total number of Chinese lawyers. In 2012, that number jumped to 26.6% of the total number of Chinese lawyers. In 2010, it was estimated that there were 45000 female judges in the Chinese judicial system, and that number was rising faster than the rate of increase of Chinese female lawyers. In general, Chinese women seem to prefer working in courts rather than in law firms. Prof. Liu sought to uncover the nuance behind this generalization.

To understand the phenomenon of feminization in the legal profession, Prof. Liu posed three research questions: Do male and female judges have different patterns of career mobility, including recruitment, promotion and attrition? Why have many female judges been promoted to mid-level leadership positions, especially in lower courts? Why is it more difficult for women to be promoted to high-level leadership positions?

After covering the broad swath of the Anglo-American literature on female judges in a Western context, Prof. Liu turned his focus to the Chinese case. Chinese judges are essentially civil servants ranked in the political administration, which affects how they move up the ranks. Lawyers frequently become judges in this system and vice versa, but the gendered spin on this trend is that men typically shift from being judges to becoming lawyers while women either go directly to the courts and remain there, or they switch there after becoming lawyers.

The thrust of Prof. Lius process in answering his research questions was through a processual approach. This involves looking at the legal profession as a social process, where there can be mobility both vertically and horizontally, through the respective processes of promotion and attrition. As Prof. Liu said, It is conventional to look at promotion and attrition as the effects of the problem of gender inequality, but we ask what if promotion and attrition were themselves causes of that inequality.

Prof. Liu conducted the collection of his data with the help of two other Chinese colleagues who were both from Nanjing. They used qualitative data in the form of in-person interviews of over fifty judges, both male and female, across 5 provinces in China. These interviews were presented against the backdrop of the Chinese judicial system as a whole, along with its selection process of its civil service exam and its various idiosyncrasies; one does not need a law degree to enter the law profession in China, and there appears to be an implicit gendered division of labor in Chinese courts.

The first element of the processual approach, promotion, was broken down into a dual-track system, with the distinction drawn between the phenomena of horse-racing and horse-picking, terms that Prof. Liu himself employed. The former is more of a meritocratic system, where the high-achievers beat out the low-achievers in receiving promotions in low-level and mid-level positions, but the latter is more political in that one requires certain social connections in the administrative system in order to move to more high-level positions. The data shows that women are better than men at horse-racing since they tend to do a lot better on the civil servant exam, but the opposite is true for horse-picking since men have access to a lot more social and cultural capital in the system. As seen from the testimonies of several women in Prof. Lius interviews, women judges feel uncomfortable socializing with their superiors or peers outside the office at informal gatherings or locations. They are worried of what society will think and their honor matters more than getting a promotion.

The second level of the processual approach, attrition, is related to what options are available to women outside of the court system. Apart from joining private law firms, they have the ability to undertake administrative positions in other branches of government, or to join corporations as their in-house counsel. These latter two options are quite lucrative, both in terms of monetary benefits as well as their career-boosting advantages. But the data shows that women show high rates of attrition in their roles as judges. From his primary data, Prof. Liu provides some reasons for this seemingly irrational phenomenon: there is a certain honor in occupying the role of a judge, there are relatively simple social relations in the courts that dont require women to go out of their way to build professional relationships, and women in their roles as judges tend not to have the pressure to be the breadwinner in their families, therefore do not see the point of moving to positions that bestow greater responsibility, and therefore greater stress, upon them.

Overall, the phenomenon of the feminization of judges, according to Prof. Liu, is both a case of structure acting on its agents, as well as the agents themselves enabling the structure. The judicial profession might limit the entry of women to higher-level professions in its hierarchy, but women dont seem to want to occupy these positions in the first place. If they wanted more responsibility and adequate compensation for that responsibility, they would show a greater propensity to transfer out to alternatives. After Prof. Lius talk, the questions that followed covered the recent policy change of court reform and the effect of centralization on the judicial profession, as well as the question of whether the conversion of male judges to lawyers would continue to be a one-way path.


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