The Role of Women Judges and a Gender Perspective in Ensuring Judicial Independence and Integrity

By Judge Vanessa Ruiz

Judge Vanessa Ruiz is a Senior Judge for the Court of Appeals in the District of Columbia (D.C.), United States of America and the current President of the International Association of Women Judges (IAWJ). She has previously acted as Chair of the D.C. Courts' Advisory Committee on Judicial Conduct and is a Commissioner for the D.C. Access to Justice Commission. Judge Ruiz recently shared her views on women's contributions to the judiciary with UNODC as part of the Organization's on-going work on promoting judicial integrity. All opinions expressed in this piece are solely those of the author as an external expert and do not necessarily reflect the official position of UNODC.


"At a time when violent conflict, economic displacement, and a changing climate are causing increasing levels of uncertainty and fear around the world, authoritarian, non-democratic movements are attempting to present themselves as an antidote to these concerns. Instead, the solution must be the rule of law- a powerful, stabilizing, and moderating influence. As judges, we must ensure that we discharge our responsibilities to the highest standards, and in turn earn the trust of the public, whose support is critical to the rule of law.

The judiciary will not be trusted if it is viewed as a bastion of entrenched elitism, exclusivity, and privilege, oblivious to changes in society and to the needs of the most vulnerable. Indeed, citizens will find it hard to accept the judiciary as the guarantor of law and human rights if judges themselves act in a discriminatory manner. That is why the presence of women is essential to the legitimacy of the judiciary.

Achieving equality for women judges, in terms of representation at all levels of the judiciary and on policy-making judicial councils, should be our goal- not only because it is right for women, but also because it is right for the achievement of a more just rule of law. Women judges are strengthening the judiciary and helping to gain the public's trust.


The entry of women judges into spaces from which they had historically been excluded has been a positive step in the direction of judiciaries being perceived as being more transparent, inclusive, and representative of the people whose lives they affect. By their mere presence, women judges enhance the legitimacy of courts, sending a powerful signal that they are open and accessible to those who seek recourse to justice.

However, women judges contribute far more to justice than improving its appearance: they also contribute significantly to the quality of decision-making, and thus to the quality of justice itself. Women judges throughout the world have earned the necessary credentials, gained accomplishments and otherwise met the standards for judicial selection. But we do, after all, live our lives as women, with all the social and cultural impacts women face, including complex family relationships and obligations.

Women judges bring those lived experiences to their judicial actions, experiences that tend toward a more comprehensive and empathetic perspective- one that encompasses not only the legal basis for judicial action, but also awareness of consequences on the people affected.

Adjudication is enhanced by the presence of women who bring to the fore considerations that would not have been taken into account in their absence; the scope of the discussion is hence enlarged, possibly preventing ill-considered or improper decisions. By elucidating how laws and rulings can be based on gender stereotypes, or how they might have a different impact on women and men, a gender perspective enhances the fairness of adjudication, which ultimately benefits both men and women. All judges should strive to bring a gender perspective to adjudication.

The issue of judging with a gender perspective has been a special focus of the International Association of Women Judges, a non-governmental association with over 6,000 members in more than 85 countries worldwide. Only by identifying bias in a purposeful and systematic way can it be eliminated. Over the years, our members have participated in judicial training on the interpretation and implementation of law in a manner that is free from gender bias and conforms to international and regional treaties and conventions. At four recent annual international conferences, sponsored by the National Supreme Court of Justice of Mexico, hundreds of judges - men and women - have engaged in rigorous analysis and thoughtful discussion of court decisions from around the world regarding gender bias. It is an ambitious and inspiring commitment to gender equality at the highest level of the judiciary.

Judicial independence is prized because it creates the space necessary for impartial judgment, but it does not ensure impartial judgment. We know that being sworn in as a judge does not magically insulate us from biases and misunderstandings, something all human beings carry as a result of their particular experiences. As neurologists and psychologists have shown us, we are all plagued by unconscious or implicit biases unknown even to ourselves. While there is no simple antidote to this problem with regards to the judiciary, diversifying the life experiences of those who adjudicate cases improves the probability that biases and misunderstandings will be checked.

Changing the long-established demographics of a court can make the institution more amenable to consider itself in a new light, and potentially lead to further modernization and reform. As a court's composition becomes more diverse, its customary practices become less entrenched; consequently, the old methods, often based on unstated codes of behavior, or simply inertia, are no longer adequate. This can be an auspicious time for careful review, for the adoption and implementation of updated codes of judicial conduct, and for training judges according to norms that are clearly stated. The presence of new faces, with new voices, is often the most compelling spur to look at things afresh and make changes long overdue.

The International Association of Women Judges is already working, and ready to join forces with others, towards a stronger ethical judiciary."