For SCOTUS, three may be the magic number

It has been almost a month since Elena Kagan was confirmed as the fourth female Supreme Court Justice, bringing a new male-female ratio to the nation’s highest judicial body. While no judicial decisions have been issued yet, researchers predict that having three women will significantly affect Supreme Court rulings.

Based on the dynamics of corporate boardrooms, research scientists from the Wellesley Center for Women suggests that women have a unique influence on small decision-making groups. While these are certainly not cut-and-dry distinctions, men and women bring different traits to any workplace. The study found the leadership style of a woman is more collaborative with increased listening and a stronger push for win-win problem solving. Women also are more likely to bring up the viewpoints of multiple stakeholders and perspectives.

The premise behind the Supreme Court theory is that having three women in a small group is enough to make gender bias a non-issue. If only one woman is involved, she will commonly become the “token female” opinion. With two women, this persists. But when there are three women, those three will typically differ in opinion enough to where each is truly acknowledged as an individual voice. This is all based on interviews with both male and female directors and CEOs of Fortune 1000 companies. Like the Supreme Court, these corporate boardrooms often are quite the boys’ club, so the research could hold true for both. In an interview with the Associated Press, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said that when she and Sandra Day O’Connor shared the bench, the two were often mistaken for each other, despite their conflicting opinions.

Back in the day, former presidents (Roosevelt and Truman, for example) avoided nominating women to be Supreme Court justices for fear of making male justices uncomfortable. However, Ginsburg’s neck lace has made her male co-workers uncomfortable since 1993. President Obama didn’t worry about the bench’s comfort level, as he’s 2-2 in his nomination of female justices. And if there is any truth to what these researchers predict, his nominations could really affect today’s court. It’s also a group of justices thought by many to be more conservative than it has been in 100 years. The ratio, in addition to being historic, could provide exactly the liberal edge the Obama administration was looking for in the Supreme Court. Even if this ‘critical mass of females’ doesn’t change a thing in the judicial branch, it breaks away at the glass ceiling first broken by Sandra Day O’Connor in 1981.

This is one of those equality milestones that we almost wish wasn’t as big of a deal as it is. Women make up a solid half of the population, so they should be more aptly represented in this branch of the government. However, numbers speak otherwise. A mere 17 percent of Congress is female. Outside of government, it gets worse with 15 percent of seats in Fortune 500 company boardrooms currently held by women.

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