The Role of Gender and The Perceived Credibility of Expert Witnesses in Court

by Papaya on March 17, 2017 - 5:44pm

Just like many other common law jurisdictions, the Canadian criminal justice system relies heavily on the testimony of expert witnesses in criminal trials when determining whether the accused is guilty or not. Although the testimony from expert witnesses alone does not guarantee either conviction or acquittal, but it is generally understood that the courts put substantial weight on the testimony of expert witnesses. When examining the role of gender and the perceived credibility of expert witnesses in court, several research produced different results with some research find no difference, some find favorable effects for men and others for women, and some find that the gender of expert witnesses’ interface with other circumstances of the case (A). The reality is the effects of expert gender are complex and sometimes depend on the circumstances of the case and most importantly, the context is critical for understanding how women and men expert will be perceived in the court of law (A)

 

The idea of men is better expert witness than women is funded by the historical concern that women might not have the same “expert power “as men (A).  Attorneys in the justice system seem to believe that jurors prefer men as more credible experts than women hence they may prefer to use men as expert witnesses (A). In fact, research findings from gender studies also suggests that men are more influential than women partially because men are viewed as more credible sources of information (A).  This is where gender stereotype comes into play. The gender stereotypes of men focus on competence, assertion, rationality, whereas for women, the stereotypes, the emphasis is on warmth and expressiveness (A).  In relation to the role of gender in the court room, women were historically precluded from the legal process because of the notion that women lacked required physical fortitude, discerning intellect and “would skew the otherwise reliable fact-finding process” (A) Although such practice of sexism no longer exists, but gender still seems to play a role in the perception of credibility of expert witnesses.

 

According to a study where mock jurors were exposed to a videotaped summary of a criminal murder trial and an excerpt of a cross-examination of a forensic mental health expert, male experts were rated as more likeable, believable, trustworthy, confident, and creditable than female experts (A). However, in another study where mock jurors were exposed to an audiotape of a simulated child custody hearing and the expert witness’s opinion about the parents in the custody dispute, female experts were rated better than males (A). Some scholar suggests that female experts were rated better in this case is because of the gender role stereotypes that women are better judges of the needs of children than men (A).  The overall conclusion of the study suggests that the findings do not represent well the whole story of expert gender effects but rather, the story seems to lie more in the boundary conditions under which interactive effects, or contextual effects emerge (A).

 

A similar study was conducted at the University of British Columbia Sauder School of Business to explore the effect of race and gender of scientists and its impact on the perception of credibility.  The study concludes that ideology plays a critical role in determining how people assess the credibility of scientific researchers (B). The study concludes “People who tend toward an elitist world view are more inclined to judge white male researchers as more credible, while people who ascribe to egalitarian beliefs are the opposite: they’re more likely to judge women or people of color as more credible researchers” (B). Relating this research finding back to the role of gender and the perceived credibility of expert witnesses, it seems that the effects of expert gender can be further complicated with the involvement of different belief systems people conform to.

 

The issue of gender role and the perceived credibility of expert witnesses in court is only a reflection of the larger theme—the socially constructed stereotypical gender norms and its consequences. Although the study concludes that the effects of expert gender are complex and sometimes depend on the circumstances of the case and context given, but the sad reality is we are assessing perceived credibility of expert witnesses in courts, not based on facts or the accuracy of the information given, but based on his or her gender role and the expectation that he /she should be considered more credible because he/she confirmed with his/her gender norm. The court is a place where people involved are supposed to be objective and neutral, specially in criminal proceedings where successful conviction will lead to the deprivation of liberty of the accused. If we are to assess the credibility of expert witnesses based on his/her gender, then we are totally disregarding the function of courts and will inevitably result in either the acquittal of vicious criminals, or the wrongful conviction of the innocent.

 

Sources: 

A. Neal, Tess. "Women as expert witnesses: A review of the literature." Behavioral sciences & the law 32.2 (2014): 1-14.

http://digitalcommons.unl.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1126&context=publicpolicypublications

B. "Race and Gender of Scientists Affect Perception of Credibility." UBC News, 25 Feb. 2016, http://news.ubc.ca/2016/02/25/race-and-gender-of-scientists-affect-perception-of-credibility/

Comments

This was a very interesting article for several reasons, not least amongst which was the fact that it examined how gender norms affect the credibility of both men and women depending on the circumstances. While living in a patriarchal society has made me accustomed to the fact that men would be stereotypically thought of as being more credible or trustworthy than women, it was interesting to see that, in the context of a custody hearing, a female expert was rated more highly than a male one.

I think the good work that this article does can be furthered by examining how intersectionality works with gender in order to affect this perception of credibility. In brief, intersectionality connotes how different modes of oppression interplay with and reinforce one another. A good examination of intersectionality and its relationship with feminism can be found here: http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/2017/01/19/feminism-intersectionality....

As such, I think the article could be furthered by looking at the relative credibility of different women. Would a Muslim woman wearing a hijab be deemed more or less trustworthy than a white woman? Would an older woman be thought of as more or less credible than a younger one? Would an individual who does not subscribe to a gender binary be deemed more or less credible than all of these? And does all of this further depend on the specific circumstances?

All of these are important questions (and ones to which I don't have the answer), and I think this article could be furthered by an examination of these questions.

All told though, it was a very interesting post.

Works Cited:

"What Is Intersectional Feminism?" USA TODAY, 19 Jan. 2017.