Women in the judiciary: A V4 success story with some flaws

At first glance, jobs in the legal and judicial system seem to be a near-perfect fit for women in V4 countries. However, statistics reveal a less perfect picture, with sheer gender imbalance in some branches, and female representation deteriorating higher in the hierarchical ranks.

Photo: Darius Norvilas

19. 08. 2016
When we have a look at the total number of judges – regardless of the court type – women constitute a majority in all V4 countries. The regional champion is Hungary with 68% female judges followed by Poland (63%) and Slovakia (63%). The regional "laggard" is the Czech Republic with 61%.

The Czech media have nicknamed her “Cattani in skirt“, referring to the popular 1980s TV character, Corrado Cattani, an Italian police officer that fought the Sicilian mafia in The Octopus (La piovra) series. 1 She has been repeatedly voted the most influential woman in the Czech Republic. 2

Lenka Bradáčová is a professional and perfectionist; someone absolutely devoted to her work, and she has reached one of the top positions of the Czech justice hierarchy. As high state attorney in Prague, Bradáčová institutes legal proceedings against corrupt politicians and businesspeople. To the general public, she is a positive face for the criminal justice system, and to many female law students, a role model.

She is not the only one. Visegrad countries have had dozens of female lawyers who’ve managed to earn respect or power (or sometimes both) in the law professions and politics. From the Czech, Dagmar Burešová, a Communist-era attorney for dissidents, who later became Minister of Justice and the first female Polish Prime Minister, Hanna Suchocka, to the controversial Hungarian head of the National Office for the Judiciary (a position responsible for the appointment of Hungarian judges), Tünde Handó, and the Slovak Public Defender of Rights, Jana Dubovcová.

When compared to the low number of women serving in top positions in V4 media management, 3 or in V4 business management, which has been described as a “no women’s land,”  4 the absolute number of women serving in the judicial system seems to be a rare success story about women´s long-term professional emancipation. 5

Why do such a high number of V4 women pursue legal scholarship, then entering the judiciary system and succeed in it? Is it because they are better apt for these professions? Or is this system more female-friendly – not plagued by the usual inadequacies common in business, media or politics, like a poor work-life balance, barriers to a career restart after maternal leave, a wage gap or a dominant male culture in the work place? And does the high female representation found in the V4’s legal and judicial ranks fall in line with general Western European patterns, or is it an exceptional legacy of the pre-1989 era?

Altruism and family – an attractive career path

Judicial careers seem to be attractive to female law graduates throughout the V4 region. Law historian and theorist, Ulrike Schultz, hypothesized that women prefer judicial careers because the job combines societal prestige and a self-rewarding altruism, with the benefits of working for state – (more or less) fair remuneration, a clear career path, a manageable workload and less stress and career pressure. 6

One illustrative case is Slovakia, where women´s entry into the profession has steadily been on the rise. In 2014, 11 out of 12 newly appointed judges were women; a year later, President Andrej Kiska appointed 14 new judges, seven of which were women. As the Slovak Ministry of Justice confirmed 24 out of 42 successful applicants for recent judicial vacancies, were women (57%). 7

Some hypothesize that female law graduates may simply be more fit for judicial jobs. In an interview for the online webzine Česká Pozice, Ivana Švehlová, the chairwoman of the Prague District Court, points out that the very nature of judiciary work requires patience and consistency – work patterns that, according to her, are attributed more to women than men. More women do apply for judicial trainee positions, and more of them manifest better preparedness in the application process. 8

One thing is for certain: V4 countries have been able to build on a modernist, albeit ambiguous, legacy of the pre-89 Communist regimes. In Poland the ratio of female judges rose from 33% in 1968 to 62% in 1990.  9 Lawyer and sociologist, Malgorzata Fuszara, has argued that the combination of  “pro-equality rhetoric and low-pay policy” resulted in, “the cessation of the legal professions being a domain of male predominance.”  10 Due to the nature of Communist regimes’ political and economic systems, many law professions were not paid well or prestigious enough to attract men, who were considered the breadwinners at the time.

A key pattern of women´s representation in the judicial system took deep root during the 1960s, and has remained one of the key weaknesses: the higher within the judicial hierarchy you move, the fewer women judges or functionaries you find. 11

The high representation of women in some law professions is the result of unintended consequences. Women began infiltrating the legal ranks via lower positions, like notaries, and benefited enormously from the economic changes following 1989. The percentage of Polish women who became notaries rose from 46% in 1977 to 66% thirteen years later in 1990. Once capitalism was restored, notaries became enormously important in the economic system, and so many women benefited from this.  12 The high demand for those in legal professions in the ‘90s, in both state and private sectors, was reflected by a steep rise in law school graduates. 13

A large female presence is not only found in the judicial ranks. The share of females working as V4 prosecutors, senior government officials responsible for the prosecution of criminal actions on behalf of state, is also high – one might say the numbers are a dream of equality come true, with a close to 50/50 ratio. Although in the V4, as in some other European countries, like Sweden, women are not found in the higher chief prosecutor positions. 14

Judges often complain about being overburdened by paper work, and petty, banal or repetitive cases that drain their decision-making time.  15 So a “hidden army” of higher administrative justice officers (Rechtspfleger in German) help them in decision-making processes, autonomously performing several judicial or quasi-judicial tasks.

These roles are indispensable to the judicial systems’ smooth functioning, and women are even more dominant in these positions. The administrative judicial staff numbers several thousand in each V4 country, and the percentage of women ranges from 85% in Slovakia to almost 90% in the Czech Republic. 16 There are also staff members, like registrars, that assist judges, and 96% to 99% of them are women in both Slovakia and the Czech Republic. 17

Intuition, empathy, emotions

A gender imbalance has become more and more evident in the visibly high number of women in the V4’s judicial ranks, resulting in the oft-debated “feminization of justice,” a phenomenon that even female justice professionals, themselves, perceive as a problem. Judge Ivana Hrdličková, who now serves as president of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL),  18 has confirmed the Czech justice system’s partial feminization,  19 while Dana Bystrianska, the President of the Slovak Judges´ Association, said she welcomed more men in the justice system. 20

Another phenomenon is the gendered or uneven distribution of female judges in certain branches of the judicial system. Men are more represented in areas like commercial and property law, while more women can be found “in areas of little prestige and financial gain, but greater emotional labor,” 21 as law historian and theorist, Ulrike Schultz, explained it.

The problem can be seen in other countries outside of the region as well. In Germany, male lawyers are more represented in criminal law, while female lawyers prevail in juvenile and family law. 22 Fuszara noted that males have also continued to dominate some Polish court departments, especially criminal departments, since 1989. 23

Apart from the aforementioned patience and consistency, do women judges have an advantage to their male counterparts? Professionals in the field admit there are actually differences in the ways men and women approach judicial work. 24 Hrdličková argues that women and men think differently, and she believes combining both approaches is beneficial to balanced decision-making. 25

Marie Brejchová, director of the legal department at Pražská energetika, an energy company owned by city of Prague, says that women develop more empathy, consequently excelling in positions that require conflict resolution.  26 Commercial law has undergone profound changes, and is now more oriented to serving clients and meeting their demands. Therefore the ability to cultivate client relationships is an enormous asset for a commercial lawyer, and the interpersonal communication skills often attributed to women, may give them a competitive advantage. 27

However while some stress typical “female” advantages for judicial work, such as intuition, empathy and sensitivity, others perceive these very features as potential disqualifiers for these positions.  28 Does a female judge’s gender influence the way she rules? When interviewing respondents, Fuszara noted some complaints about allowance payments and female judges’ rulings surprisingly tilting in the favor of sued men. 29

This can raise gender-biased concerns about sensitive legal issues in family law, such as divorce rulings. According to Dušan Čimo, a member of the Slovak Justice Council, a decision comprised of women’s voices can raise doubts about objectivity, especially when a dispute concerns children. 30

Organizations that defend the rights of fathers, such as the Polish Association for the Protection of Fathers’ Rights, complain that the family law courts, which are predominantly represented by female judges, tend to hand children’s custodial rights over to women. 31

The higher, the lesser women

Gender distribution within the V4’s judicial ranks reflects an inverse relationship – the higher the position, the less women to be found. Similar situations can be found within big law firms in the region.  32 So is there a “glass ceiling” problem, like in other well-known spheres of public life? Schultz argues that, “discrimination against women, however well-concealed, refined and possibly subconscious, is still rife,” leaving women “on the margins of power and privilege.” 33

While a survey conducted by the V4Revue revealed that the V4 outperforms Western Europe in some ways, and that gender inequality in the region actually favors women in some areas of the legal and judicial system, when observing the upper echelons of justice, we see male dominance, despite equal or higher numbers of female graduates with MA-equivalent degrees in Law or Legal Studies. Švehlová told the webzine, Česká Pozice, that this had been a problem she had encountered for more than 30 years. 34

Climbing up the professional ladder, we see a visible drop in female representation in the regional, first and second instance courts’ judicial positions. With -15%,  35 Czech Republic has the steepest decline, followed by -8% decline in the Hungary  36 and a -3% decline in Slovakia.  37

When we look within each country’s highest judicial body in the civil and penal jurisdiction domain – the supreme courts,  38 the ratio of female judges declines visibly, but with significant disparities among V4 countries. But when compared to other Western European countries like Austria or Sweden, where female representation among supreme court judges varies from 33% to 38% respectively, V4 countries performance is rather satisfactory. Moreover, women hold two of the four V4 supreme court presidential positions, serving in both Poland and Slovakia.  39

In most V4 countries, female judges in court chair positions number significantly less than the female judges overall, with one exception – Hungary.


The highest courts, the constitutional courts, are legal bodies responsible for ensuring that a country’s legislation is compatible with its constitutional provisions and principles, in particular those establishing citizens’ rights and freedoms. The female representation among constitutional judges range from 13% in the Czech Republic to 25% in Poland; while Slovakia is the only country that boasts a female constitutional court president, the highest judicial honor. 40

Despite the fact that judicial positions are “state jobs,” high ranking judges also have many managerial duties, and these take a toll. Top judges, prosecutors and corporate lawyers face the same problems as top managers or entrepreneurs, like high levels of stress, long hours and work overload.  41

Corporate life

Although there are less women working in legal advocacy than there are in the judicial field, the numbers are still quite high in the V4. Female representation among V4 lawyers varies: from 53% in Poland and 44% in Hungary, to 39% in Slovakia and 35% in the Czech Republic. But when compared to their Western counterparts, like Austria with women making up only 20% of the legal field or Sweden with 29% female representation, V4 countries perform quite well.  42

While the high ratio of female judges is in part due to the totalitarian, yet in some ways emancipatory Communist project, high female representation among lawyers is due both to the enormous demand for this profession in the V4 after 1989, and the worldwide expansion of the commercial law field. 43

Vladimíra Glatzová, the founder and partner of the law firm Glatzova & Co.,  44 is one of the most successful private lawyers in the Czech Republic. She claimed in the online economic magazine, ihned.cz, that women lawyers are as excellent and successful as their male counterparts, and that attracting clients is not more difficult for women than it is for men.  45

In another interview for ihned.cz, Dagmar Dubecká, the leading partner of the law firm Kocián Šolc Balaštík said she believes there are no dramatic differences in women or men’s chances to be successful attorneys, adding that law firms represent a less-hierarchal world compared to medicine, for example.  46 However, Dubecká confirms that there are some areas of commercial law, such as mergers and acquisitions, where visibly fewer women are employed. 47

Recent research on the current situation for female attorneys in Poland’s private sphere, found that women are exposed to professional pressures and expectations to align with the traditional notion of a successful career path, and that the legal profession’s flexibility provided them with possibilities to combine their private and professional lives. 48

Women may not be interested in certain areas of commercial law because the work is too demanding and difficult to attune with their personal or family life, and because it is a world where clients are predominantly men. As Dubecká recollects: “It is true that sometimes on a first meeting, I noticed some strange looks, like ‘what is this woman doing here?’ but soon it’s over.” 49

Glatzová agrees that motherhood limits female attorneys’ time flexibilities, resulting in few women partners at big legal firms.  50 Women are either relegated to lower positions,  51 or separated into distinct branches,  52 where a culture of “total commitment and long-hours,” as Schultz characterizes it, does not prevail. 53

Again the critical factor here is motherhood, assistance returning to work and re-starting careers and the need to align familial and professional lives. For this, researchers Hearn, Biese, Choroszewicz and Husu have argued that women need female “support systems, including formal work-life reconciliation policies, flexible working arrangements, professional autonomy, equal career opportunities, workplace mentoring, and spousal and family support.” 54

So women lawyers tend to establish or work for smaller firms, and take on more individual clients rather than big corporate ones.  55 Glatzová said that she knew some excellent women lawyers that established smaller, calmer praxis, and were able to successfully combine motherhood with their work. 56

Conclusion

Worldwide, studying and practicing law has been an important vehicle for the political emancipation of women, who since the 19th century, have managed to transform it step-by-step into political power. As Schultz said, women have benefited both from an educational system that rewarded their knowledge, capabilities and academic performances, and by obtaining the successive system of formal qualifications necessary for their introduction into legal and judicial offices. 57

In all V4 countries, the Communist regimes established at the end of the 1940s reinforced some positive trends in women´s professional participation in the judicial system, while also establishing some problems the system still struggles with today. Those include the feminization of certain judicial branches, especially family law, which raises doubts about impartiality; and the judiciary’s hierarchical structure, which sees less female participation in higher and more prominent positions.

The solutions to the first problem seems to lie within the judicial system’s self-governance, the need to attract male judges into the family law arena and distribute cases more equally. While the second problem´s solutions resemble those for other areas of demanding professional life – those that help women establish and sustain a better work/life balance – like the provision of childcare to enable mothers’ return to work or the subversion of automatic gender stereotypes that question women´s professional commitment and efficiency.  58

The full data visualisation is available here. In case you would like to receive the full data set for either country or the whole V4, send us an email at rebecca(at)visegradrevue.eu

The article is part of the project “Learning about causes and effects of gender (im)balance in Central Europe” funded by the European Union flag_yellow_high
The content series was created by the V4Revue, not by the funder.

Notes:

  1. La piovra (The Octopus) was aired several times in former Czechoslovakia and later in the Czech Republic. IMDB.com, http://imdb.to/2b3haJ8 (accessed on July 2, 2016).
  2. “TOP ženy Česka v kategorii veřejná sféra za rok 2015 / Czech Republic´s Top Women: The Public sector. The winner is Lenka Bradáčová, High State Attorney,” ihned.cz, January, 27, 2016, http://bit.ly/2a9XXX5 (accessed on July 2, 2016).
  3. Olga Gyárfášová, “Why don’t the V4 countries have more women voices in the media?” visegradrevue.eu, November 12, 2015, http://bit.ly/20PCR58 (accessed on July 2, 2016).
  4. Edit Inotai, “Business in the V4: Still a no women’s land,” visegradrevue.eu, June 9, 2016, http://bit.ly/2abmdJr (accessed on July 2, 2016).
  5. Ulrike Schultz, Introduction: Women in the World’s Legal Professions: Overview and Synthesis, p. xlv. in: Ulrike Schultz, Gisela Shaw (eds.), Women in the World’s Legal Professions, Oñati International Series in Law and Society, Oñati Institute for the Sociology of Law, Oxford, Portland Oregon, 2003.
  6. Schultz, Introduction, p. xlvi in Women in the World’s Legal Professions.
  7. “Slovenská justícia je v rukách žien / The Slovak justice in the hands of women,” aktuality.sk, August 1, 2015, http://bit.ly/2a9X3d7 (accessed on July 2, 2016).
  8. Kristián Léko, “Máme obrovský převis poptávky po práci v justici / There is a huge overhang in the demand for work in justice,” Česká pozice, June 9, 2016, http://bit.ly/2akRb12 (accessed on July 2, 2016).
  9. Małgorzata Fuszara, “Women Lawyers in Poland under the Impact of Post-1989 Transformation,” p. 372. in: Schultz, Shaw (eds.), Women in the World’s Legal Professions, 2003.
  10. Ibid., p. 374.
  11. Ibid., p. 374.
  12. Ibid., p. 385.
  13. Ibid., p. 373.
  14. WMID Mapping tables: Public prosecutors, Coverage for data collection 2015, http://bit.ly/29XXG6N (accessed on July 2, 2016); European Commission, Justice, Gender Equality, Judiciary, Public prosecutors, http://bit.ly/2a2zaCm (accessed on July 2, 2016).
  15. For example, see: an interview with the Czech court district judge Vladimír Sova. Jaroslav Paclík, “Soudíme i párky za 79 korun, jsme zahlceni, stěžují si soudci v Jihlavě / We have to judge even the petty theft of 79 Czech crowns´ worth sausages. We are overloaded, complains the judge in Jihlava,” idnes.cz, May 3, 2016, http://bit.ly/2at7gyS (accessed on July 2, 2016).
  16. Study on the functioning of judicial systems in the EU Member States, p. 377, 789.
  17. Ibid.
  18. Special Tribunal for Lebanon – Principals, http://bit.ly/2bmfOuW (accessed on July 2, 2016).
  19. Ivana Hrdličková, K setkání s egyptskými soudci při jejich studijní cestě v České republice. Úvaha o úloze a postavení žen v justici / On the meeting with Egyptian judges during their study travel in the Czech Republic. An reflection on the role and position of women in justice, 2007, p. 3, http://bit.ly/2aIiVyg (accessed on July 2, 2016).
  20. Kristián Léko, “Máme obrovský převis poptávky po práci v justici,” http://bit.ly/2akRb12.
  21. Schultz, Introduction, p. xlvi in Women in the World’s Legal Professions.
  22. Ibid., p. xli.
  23. Fuszara, Women Lawyers in Poland, p. 376 in Women in the World’s Legal Professions.
  24. Schultz, Introduction, p. xlvii in Women in the World’s Legal Professions.
  25. Ivana Hrdličková, K setkání s egyptskými soudci při jejich studijní cestě v České republice. Úvaha o úloze a postavení žen v justici / On the meeting with Egyptian judges during their study travel in the Czech Republic. A reflection on the role and position of women in justice, 2007, p. 3, http://bit.ly/2aIiVyg (accessed on July 2, 2016).
  26. (jk), “77070. 10 otázek pro… Marii Brejchovou,” epravo.cz, September 14, 2011, http://bit.ly/2aaXu7A (accessed on July 2, 2016).
  27. Mike Dent, Ivy Lynn Bourgeault, Jean-Louis Denis, Ellen Kuhlmann (ed.), The Routledge Companion to the Professions and Professionalism, Routledge: 2016, p. 64.
  28. Schultz, Introduction, p. liii in Women in the World’s Legal Professions.
  29. Fuszara, Women Lawyers in Poland, p. 375, in Women in the World’s Legal Professions.
  30. “Slovenská justícia je v rukách žien / The Slovak justice in the hands of women,” aktuality.sk, August 1, 2015, http://bit.ly/2a9X3d7 (accessed on July 2, 2016).
  31. Fuszara, Women Lawyers in Poland, p. 375. Schultz, Introduction, p. xli in Women in the World’s Legal Professions.
  32. Dent, Bourgeault, Denis, Kuhlmann (eds.), The Routledge Companion, 2016, p. 64.
  33. Schultz, Introduction, p. xl in Women in the World’s Legal Professions.
  34. Kristián Léko, “Máme obrovský převis poptávky po práci v justice,” http://bit.ly/2akRb12.
  35. Study on the functioning of judicial systems in the EU Member States, p. 375.
  36. European commission for the efficiency of justice (CEPEJ), Scheme for evaluating judicial systems 2013, Country: Poland, 10/09/2014.
  37. Study on the functioning of judicial systems in the EU Member States, p. 544, 785.
  38. WMID Mapping tables: Supreme courts, Coverage for data collection 2015, http://bit.ly/2aiKYS3; http://bit.ly/29XXHHP (accessed on July 2, 2016).
  39. It´s also noteworthy that Slovakia experienced the biggest drop – from 52% in 2010 to 38% in 2015. See: European Commission, Justice, Gender Equality, Judiciary Supreme courts, http://bit.ly/29XXHHP (accessed on July 2, 2016).
  40. WMID Mapping tables: Constitutional courts, Coverage for data collection 2015, http://bit.ly/2bakkdf (accessed on July 2, 2016).
  41. “Slovenská justícia je v rukách žien / The Slovak justice in the hands of women,” aktuality.sk, August 1, 2015, http://bit.ly/2a9X3d7 (accessed on July 2, 2016).
  42. CCBE lawyers’ statistics 2015, http://bit.ly/2a5zVbU (accessed on July 2, 2016).
  43. Schultz, Introduction, p. lii in Women in the World’s Legal Professions.
  44. “Ženy, které mají vliv (i na vás) / Women who do have influence (on you as well),” Forbes, 2015, http://bit.ly/2aVHtjk (accessed on July 2, 2016).
  45. Jan Januš, “Advokacie přeje ženám. Přinášíme návody na úspěch od tří úspěšných právniček / Advocacy wishes women. We bring you some instructions for success from three successful female lawyers,” ihned.cz, July 18, 2013, http://bit.ly/2akTyRe (accessed on July 2, 2016).
  46. Ibid.
  47. Ibid.
  48. Mike Dent, Ivy Lynn Bourgeault, Jean-Louis Denis, Ellen Kuhlmann (ed.), The Routledge Companion to the Professions and Professionalism, Routledge, 2016, p. 65.
  49. Januš, “Advokacie přeje ženám.”
  50. Ibid.
  51. Schultz, Introduction, p. l in Women in the World’s Legal Professions.
  52. Ibid.
  53. Ibid., p. xliv.
  54. Dent, Bourgeault, Denis, Kuhlmann (ed.), The Routledge Companion, 2016, p. 65.
  55. Schultz, Introduction, p. xlii in Women in the World’s Legal Professions.
  56. Januš, “Advokacie přeje ženám.”
  57. Schultz, Introduction, p. xxxv in Women in the World’s Legal Professions.
  58. Ibid., p. xlix.
Jan Adamec

Jan Adamec

is editor of the V4Revue, historian and political scientist. His area of expertise is the history of Hungary, USSR and Czechoslovakia 1948 – 1957. He graduated from Central European University in Budapest and Charles University in Prague where he currently completes his PhD degree with thesis about the Hungarian uprising in 1956.