Stories, Just-so Stories and Data: Elevating Narratives of Women in the Judiciary and Unlocking Insights through Comprehensive Data Collection and Analysis
By Anne Tierney Goldstein and Jane Charles-Voltaire
The International Association of Women Judges (IAWJ) has partnered with Co-Impact, a global philanthropic collaborative fund, to develop and implement a multi-year program aimed at enabling entry, improving retention, and promoting sustainable leadership pathways for women in the judiciary throughout the Global South.
Through the Women in leadership in Law (WILIL) program, the IAWJ will engage with affiliated national associations in five countries (Nigeria, Kenya, South Africa, Mexico, and the Philippines) to identify challenges that prevent women from succeeding in their leadership journeys and collaborate on country specific pathways to address those barriers in a sustainable way.
Women have made tremendous progress in the judiciary since the IAWJ’s founding in 1989. In most countries, they serve at all levels of the judiciary; in some countries (including the Philippines), they are more than half of the country’s judges -- and a female Chief Justice is no longer a rarity. It remains true, however, that the further up the career ladder one looks, the fewer women one sees. The question is: why? The five pilot countries are exploring different strategies for removing the barriers that judges there believe remain.
In September 2023, we had the privilege of traveling to Manila and Tagaytay City to meet with members and the leadership of the Philippine Women Judges Association (PWJA) to identify program targets and hone priorities. In addition, our trip included discussions with the Chief Justice and members of the Supreme Court, representatives from the Committee on Gender Responsiveness in the Judiciary, leadership from the Philippine Judicial Academy, and various stakeholders.
The PWJA has long been one of the most successful national affiliates, both in terms of numbers of members and level of engagement with IAWJ. It has had at least five members of the International Board, including two presidents.1 Philippine Supreme Court Associate Justice Amy Lazaro- Javier and Associate Justice Maria Filomena D. Singh continue this tradition, serving as IAWJ Vice President and Regional Director for the Asia Pacific, respectively. The PWJA has partnered with IAWJ on multiple projects going back more than a quarter century and embraced all these projects with enthusiasm and skill.
In conversations with IAWJ over the past year and a half, the PWJA has described its own ongoing initiatives to help women enter the judiciary, rise within the judicial hierarchy, and flourish in the Philippine court career ladder: (1) to raise the visibility of Philippine women judges by supporting a series of videos on women judges, see ‘HerStory’ of Justices, Judges - Supreme Court of the Philippines (judiciary.gov.ph); (2) to prioritize women judges’ mental health (Supreme Court Shows Support for Mental Well-Being of Women Judges - Supreme Court of the Philippines (judiciary.gov.ph)); and (3) to work with and through the Supreme Court’s Committee on Gender Responsiveness and other court bodies on issues of concern to members. (SC Committee on Gender Responsiveness in the Judiciary - Activities and Projects - Supreme Court of the Philippines)
During a week of strategic meetings, the PWJA’s leadership and members collaborated closely with us to refine their paths within the WILIL program. The PWJA's primary ambition is to expand and deepen its efforts to highlight women judges, especially those with unconventional career paths. The "Her Story" award, currently show-casing a woman who began her career as a court maintenance worker, exemplifies this commitment. PWJA is particularly keen on increasing the visibility of women judges from rural districts, recognizing that they may be more overlooked in promotion decisions.
Telling women’s stories is important for its own sake, because as we all know, women’s stories get overlooked unless special effort is made to preserve them. Nor is this a shibboleth about women’s modesty and reluctance to “lean in” – reams of data show that women who do not tell their own stories are viewed as less competent job candidates, while women who do lean in and tell their own stories are viewed as more competent – but less collegial and therefore also not good candidates.
The challenge that the IAWJ, and affiliated associations like the PWJA, encounters in designing programs to eliminate remaining barriers to women’s advancement is that no one knows exactly what those barriers are. All we have are “just so stories.”
A generation or two ago, blatant discrimination was completely legal – now it is not. This is progress to be celebrated, but much work remains if women are ever to approach parity levels on higher courts.
During our visit, we learned that the PWJA possesses an advantage few associations have. Their judiciary collects and stores gender disaggregated data for all levels of the career hierarchy. In the months to come, it will be possible for us to learn how many women and men apply for promotions and from which path (within the courts, from academia, or from the private sector) and at what precise points women’s representation starts to flag, whether during the training courses, the interview process with the Judicial and Bar Council or elsewhere.
The members of PWJA have been catalysts in institutionalizing gender-disaggregated data collection throughout the judiciary. PWJA takes great pride in this accomplishment, and our week together focused on how to leverage this data to narrate the story of women judges in the Philippines and extract valuable lessons for application in other contexts. They have diligently ensured that data are gender-disaggregated at all stages of the judicial career trajectory, from entry to promotion application, to success rates at the judicial training academy, and to success rates before the selection committee. These data promise to transform anecdotal stories into empirically grounded analyses, which will benefit us all in supporting women's ascent within the judicial career ladder.
 Although this is technically an initiative of the Gender Advisory Committee of the Supreme Court, that committee is integrated by PWJA members, and (at least to outside observers) bears their fingerprints.
 This is one of the lessons that the project team has learned from the work of Iris Bohnet, described in her book What Works: Gender Equality By Design.