Why are there so few women arbitrators?

The question of why women are severely under-represented in international arbitration is puzzling  (and was the issue of interesting discussion in this blog’s previous incarnation by Irene Ten Cate here). With so many qualified candidates, why are women not being nominated to sit as arbitrators in big-ticket international arbitrations?

In February 2013, our colleagues at Kluwer Arbitration Blog published the result of an interesting poll that addresses exactly this question.

The poll asked participants to rate three possible reasons why women continue to be underrepresented in arbitration. The three potential options were:

1. Generational issues: top female arbitrators and arbitration law firm partners active today graduated at a time when proportionally fewer women entered legal practice;

2. Party appointment system:  arbitrators are selected in a system that creates a barrier to entry and reinforces the status quo by favoring an elite of repeat players;

3. Time demands: the hours and travel required are incompatible with having a family and thus preclude women (who remain the main care-givers) to become arbitrators.

The data collected are analyzed in details in the blog. What is interesting is that the results of the survey depend to some extent on who replies. So, analyzing the data in terms of gender, women generally find that party-appointment is the main culprit, while men tend to distribute their response more equally among the three possible options.

Responses also vary depending on age. Thus, the 55+ age group attributes less importance to time demands, which instead are signaled as important reasons for the 31-42 age group and for the 18-30 age group.

Tellingly, party appointment was the category that both genders and all age groups ranked overall as the highest. Responses to generation issues were more difficult to explain, and one can see why as many female partners presently lead the most successful private international arbitration practice, which implies that qualified candidates exist for the most complex and high profile appointments.

Interestingly, time demands were considered to be more of an obstacle by younger generations than for older generations. Maybe this is because these are the women that are either thinking of having a family or have small children to care of, so time demands are real in their lives. One interesting question is whether time demands are assumed to be a reason by the appointing party – so that women do not get asked – or whether appointments are turned down by women because of time demands.

This remains important topic for discussion, and it would be interesting to see how we could be pro-active in finding a way to address it.


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