Court decisions at all levels have important impacts on policy, law, and ultimately on consumers and business. They enforce contracts and order financial penalties. They make judgments about constitutionality, fraud, liability, discrimination, antitrust violations, and so much more. Those judgments can impact individual pocketbooks, economic relationships and partnerships, economic forecasts, and more. But the people who do the work of the judiciary aren't necessarily representative of the population.
The jobs that make up the United States judicial system—lawyers, clerks, paralegals, judges, and other judicial workers—have historically been largely held by men. It wasn't until 1869 that Arabella Mansfield became the first woman lawyer in the nation, 80 years after the judicial system was established. Before then, women were frequently legally denied the right to practice as lawyers due to their gender.
Since then, more and more women have joined the judicial workforce, but the field is still largely dominated by men.
While we recognize that gender is nonbinary, due to lack of available data this article focuses only on men and women. With respect to gender-fluid individuals, we report gender representation in the judiciary as men and women, rather than male and female. We acknowledge that sex as reported may not accurately represent an individual’s identity.
- Women are represented in the judiciary, but at a much lower rate than men. About a third of judicial positions are held up by women.
- Historically, only 4% of Supreme Court Justices have been women.
- More women are now working in the judicial system than ever before, though they are still outnumbered by men.
Historical Gender Representation in the Judiciary
For the first 80 years that the judicial system existed, there were no women who worked in it (or allowed to). Even when women started to try working as lawyers, they were frequently legally denied the right.
In 1928, Genevieve Rose Cline was the first woman appointed to the federal bench. This occurred 59 years after Arabella Mansfield became the first woman lawyer, and nearly 140 years after the U.S. court system was established.
In the 1970s, an influx of women entering law school resulted in a larger percentage of women being represented in the judiciary. In 1979, women federal judges more than doubled.
Today, more women are going to law school than ever before. In fact, for the third year in a row, women outnumber men in law school classrooms. Despite this, the number of women holding leadership positions in the legal profession has not increased at the same rate.
Gender Representation in Current Judicial Job Occupations
As a whole, women hold much fewer jobs in all judicial roles than men do. The chart below provides more information about the disparity of jobs in the judiciary between men and women.
Per the latest jobs report (2020), women lawyers make up approximately 37.4% of the lawyers in the U.S.
This data also shows that women are more represented in lower level judicial positions such as paralegals, legal assistants, and legal support workers, etc. At the highest level, the Supreme Court, only three of the nine justices are women.
Gender Representation in the Federal Court System
The federal court system of the United States is made up of three main levels: district courts (the general trial courts), circuit courts (the court of appeals), and the Supreme Court (the highest court level in the judicial system).
It's important to examine all levels of the federal court system because each system has different levels of authority and deals with different kinds of cases.
The district court system is where the general trial courts occur. All federal court cases begin in the district courts, including civil and criminal cases.
There are 94 district courts across the country. Of these 94 courts, there are currently 203 women judges, while there are 418 men judges. Women make up about a third of the total number of district court judges.
At the district court level, there is one gender nonconforming judge.
The circuit court system is the appellate court system, or the court of appeals. Once a ruling is made in a district court, the case can be appealed to the circuit court. It is a higher level of court where the decision of the district court can be reviewed and potentially changed.
There are 13 circuit courts in the United States. The 94 district courts are organized into 12 circuits, and these circuit courts hear the appealed cases of the district courts. The 13th circuit is the Federal Circuit Court of Appeals, which has a nationwide jurisdiction over special subject matter.
Across these 13 circuit courts, 60 women and 115 men serve as judges. Women make up about a third of these judges.
The Supreme Court of the United States is the next and highest level of the federal court system. Once a ruling is made in a circuit court, the case can be appealed to the Supreme Court, which has the final say on the matter.
Nine justices serve on the Supreme Court. Currently, three of these justices are women—again, a third of the total. But of the 112 Supreme Court Justices throughout American history, only five have been women, a mere 4% historic rate.
Sandra Day O'Connor made history as the first woman Supreme Court Justice in 1981. She served until her retirement in 2006.
Gender Representation in the State Court System
The state court system varies state by state, but most states follow a structure similar to the federal system and have several levels, which include a general trial level, an appellate level, and a final appellate level.
The map below displays the number of women judges per state at all levels of each state court system.
According to The Gavel Gap, "state courts handle more than 90% of the judicial business in America."
Per the above map, there are 6,056 women and 17,778 men judges at the state court level—this equates to about a third of the judges being women.
The disparity is extremely apparent at the state court level where there are over 10,000 more men serving as judges.
At the state level, there is one gender nonconforming judge.
The Bottom Line
More women are now working in the judicial system than ever before, though they are still outnumbered by men. Important decisions about societal, legal, and financial practices are made in these jobs.
Having more women serve in these roles helps to build the inclusivity, fairness, transparency, and representation of the people that the judicial system stands for. The influx of women currently in law school may signal that a more fair representation of women in the judiciary is on the way. This broader representation should also extend to nonbinary and gender-fluid individuals, both in law school and on the bench. This could well be happening, but there is no data to report. Such information needs to be collected for us to measure the full extent of gender representation in the judiciary.