"You Don't Look Like An Expert:" Women In The Role of Expert Witness
You may not know this about me, but I was once on a reality show. I’ll write more about that in a different post, but I will just say now that I was the behavioral profiler on a reality competition where we tried to catch contestants pretending to be fugitives. Basically, I played myself.
The producers of the show made sure I had a beard before we started shooting. Why is that, you ask? Because psychologists have beards. Freud had a beard. In order to look the part, I had to have a beard.
What should now be obvious to at least 50% of the world’s population, that is extremely unfair. Women don’t have beards. Women can’t grow beards. They are essentially locked out of the club. They can be psychologists. They can be really good psychologists. But they can’t look like psychologists. The general public will not give them the benefit of the doubt because they “look the part” in the same way I am likely given that privilege.
In a 2014 article, researcher Tess Neal from the University of Nebraska’s Public Policy Center reviewed the research on women in the role of expert witness. Based on Social Role Theory, she found that men are expected to be more competent and assertive than women and when women violate the expectations of others, people don’t like them very much. But, expert witnesses are supposed to be competent and assertive! Hence the Catch-22 for women.
Neal reviewed several studies that showed women working in the courtroom still experience gender discrimination, even in the 21st Century, and up to 80% of female experts “believe that gender is a factor in the selection of an expert witness,” (pg. 168). Women tend to need better credentials and be more competent than their male counterparts before judges will qualify them as experts. But remember, those qualities are then used against them because they go against traditional gender expectations…
Although some studies have found that gender does not affect a jury’s decision, Neal reviewed several experiments that show men are seen as “more likable, believable, trustworthy, confident, and credible,” (pg. 169). This finding did not hold true for cases where women are traditionally seen as more expert—parenting and custody disputes in particular.
In some cases, higher compensatory damages were awarded when a woman was the expert, rather than a man—these were cases where the experts were automotive engineers, a field typically associated with men. I’m not sure what to make of this finding.
In general though, Neal found that “gender congruety of the case; that is, the congruency between the domain of the case and the experts’ gender” (pg. 170) predicted whether men or women would be more successful as expert witnesses. Based on Social Role Theory, if the expert testimony seems more stereotypically masculine or feminine, that has an affect on the credibility of the expert based on his/her gender.
One other interesting finding: male experts led to higher awards in highly complex cases, and female experts led to higher awards in low-complexity cases.
The good news? Well, if there is any good news, it is that Neal points out all of the effects mentioned above are relatively small and do not tend to have major effects on verdicts or awards. But, gender does play a subtle role in the courtroom, and it appears women have a more difficult time as expert witnesses than men do (unless they are testifying about traditionally feminine issues).
In the meantime, I’m not going to be on any more reality shows, but I’m probably keeping the beard.
Neal, T. M. S. (2014). Women as Expert Witnesses: A Review of the Literature. Behavioral Sciences and the Law, 32, pp. 164-179.