Gender in the Courtroom Workgroup: Understanding the Relationship Between the Composition of Workgroups and the Gender Gap in Punishment

AuthorRachel Bowman,Daniela Oramas Mora,Ojmarrh Mitchell,Cassia Spohn
Published date01 March 2023
Date01 March 2023
Subject MatterArticles
CRIMINAL JUSTICE AND BEHAVIOR, 2023, Vol. 50, No. 3, March 2023, 410 –428.
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© 2022 International Association for Correctional and Forensic Psychology
Understanding the Relationship Between the
Composition of Workgroups and the Gender
Gap in Punishment
Arizona State University
For decades, research has revealed a gender disparity in criminal case outcomes. This phenomenon was traditionally
explained as a product of male court actors’ protectiveness of women and the minimization of female threat. In the current
study, we capitalize on the increasing gender diversity of courts to examine if the gender gap in punishment is explained by
the gender composition of the decision-making body in criminal courts: the courtroom workgroup. Using a sample of felony
cases from Florida’s circuit courts in 2017 (N = 10,605), we measure workgroups as judges, prosecutors, and defense attor-
neys assigned to the same division. We find that the gender diversity of the workgroup does not explain variations in court
outcomes, nor does it explain the presence of gender disparities we observed in all but one of our case outcomes. As such,
male protectionism is insufficient to explain the more lenient treatment of women in Florida’s criminal courts.
Keywords: gender; sentencing; decision-making; criminal justice; female offenders
Women comprise roughly 50% of the U.S. population but only about 7% of the prison
population (Carson, 2021). This gender disparity is primarily explained by differ-
ences in offending rates between men and women (DeLisi & Vaughn, 2016), but even
among those who commit crimes, women tend to receive more favorable outcomes from
the court than men with similar case characteristics (i.e., offense severity, offense type,
and prior criminal histories) (Bontrager et al., 2013). Over time, the gender gaps in
AUTHORS’ NOTE: This project was supported by Award No. 2018-R2-CX-0021, awarded by the National
Institute of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Department of Justice. The opinions, findings, and conclu-
sions or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect
those of the Department of Justice. Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Rachel
Bowman, Arizona State University, 411 N. Central Ave, Phoenix, AZ 85004; e-mail:
1140362CJBXXX10.1177/00938548221140362Criminal Justice and BehaviorBowman et al. / Gender in the Courtroom Workgroup
offending rates and punishment are narrowing, with the proportion of women sentenced
to prison and the average sentence length served by women nearly doubling in the past 40
years (Bontrager et al., 2013; Bronson & Carson, 2019; Campaniello, 2019; Fraga, 2020;
U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, 1981). At the same time, more and more women are
entering the legal profession. In 2020, nearly 55% of first-year law students were women
(American Bar Association [ABA], 2021), and while some areas of law remain male-
dominated, women are increasingly represented in the criminal justice profession (U.S.
Bureau of Labor Statistics [BLS], 2021). In the current study, we investigate whether the
narrowing gender gap in punishment and the increasing representation of women in the
courtroom are related.1
Much of the research on courts and sentencing uses the court communities' perspective,
which emphasizes how courts are complex social institutions (Eisenstein et al., 1988). From
this perspective, courts do not mechanistically apply “the law”; they interpret the law and
apply it in ways that fit with the values of the court community and allow for efficient case
processing (Ulmer, 1997). Within court communities, judges, prosecutors, and defense
attorneys make up individual courtroom workgroups. These workgroups develop shared
norms through their interaction on cases over time (Eisenstein & Jacob, 1977). Using the
court communities' perspective, we examine the role of gender in courtroom workgroups.
Specifically, we investigate whether gender diversity in the workgroup leads to more or less
punitive outcomes and whether workgroups with a larger proportion of female court actors
produce smaller gender disparities in case outcomes than more male-dominated work-
groups. Below, we review the empirical evidence of a gender gap in punishment and its
proposed theoretical explanations. Then, we discuss the relationship between gender and
decision-making in the court. Finally, we conclude by highlighting the importance of exam-
ining gender in the context of the courtroom workgroup.
Gender is a fundamental correlate of crime in which women are less likely to be involved
in crime than men, and this gender gap in offending is particularly pronounced among vio-
lent and, to a lesser extent, property and drug crimes (DeLisi & Vaughn, 2016; Mallicot,
2019). When women do commit crimes, they generally receive less punitive outcomes than
their male counterparts (Butcher et al., 2017; Doerner & Demuth, 2014). This suggests that
there are gendered pathways through the criminal justice system. Below, we address two of
the primary theoretical frameworks used to understand how women are perceived and
treated by criminal justice actors.
Gender disparities in criminal court outcomes are often understood in terms of the chiv-
alry and evil woman hypotheses (Griffin & Wooldredge, 2006; Nagel & Hagan, 1983). The
chivalry (or paternalism) hypothesis suggests that women receive more lenient treatment
from court actors because they are seen as biologically weaker and more in need of protec-
tion (Anderson, 1976; Bishop & Frazier, 1984). The notion of chivalry in criminal courts is
predicated on decision-makers being men (Farnworth & Teske, 1995). According to this
hypothesis, male court actors will be more likely to offer diversion, make more favorable

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