The impact of professional title gender declination in the legal profession
There is growing interest in gendered language, its correct uses, and its causes and effects, both in the scientific and the public debate. In the Italian language, most professional titles can be declined according to gender. However, in many professions, the male title is still predominantly used by females. The objective of the survey, conducted by FBK-IRVAPP together with the Equal Opportunities Committee of the Rovereto Bar Association, is to measure the penalty associated with the use of the professional title declined in the feminine (e.g. “avvocata” instead of “avvocato” for women). Although the feminine title exists and is grammatically correct, its use by female professionals remains very low. For example, a survey conducted by CPO Rovereto in 2021 showed that only 15% of female lawyers use the feminine declination.
The study involved a sample of about 230 male and female professionals from Trentino. The respondents to the survey were shown five distinct hypothetical scenarios and asked to indicate the likelihood that they would turn to certain professional profiles (4 for each scenario) in case of need (lawyers, accountants, doctors/brokers). For each profile, the professional titles and a series of characteristics (such as gender, age, experience, etc.) were indicated. For the profiles representing female lawyers, respondents were randomly assigned to see the professional titles declined in the masculine form (“avvocato“) or in the feminine form (“avvocata“). This allowed the research team to answer the following question: all other things being equal, how likely is it to choose “avvocata” Maria Rossi over “avvocato” Maria Rossi?
When presented with the female declination of the professional title, the profiles of female professionals were rated 0.4 points lower (out of 10) by both male and female respondents than when presented with the masculine title, all other characteristics being equal (age, experience, practice, etc.). This effect is particularly strong and negative (-0.6) in the scenarios stereotypically associated more with women (such as family law). In the scenarios stereotypically associated more with men (criminal and commercial law) the effect is also negative but smaller (-0.2). The results of the study show that the impact of female declination is potentially large: presenting a profile with the female declination of the title carries a penalty similar to presenting oneself with 10 years less of experience. This effect is particularly strong for younger professionals and lawyers with lower experience, or without strong ‘quality’ signals, such as being part of an associated firm or having passed the bar exam.
In general, the results show that the correct use of the term female, at least in the legal field in the context of the Province of Trento, entails a penalty in terms of image as perceived by potential collaborators or clients. This may explain in part why the term feminine is so rarely used among female professionals and calls for aggregate and coordinated public policy interventions, at the level of professional associations and/or public administrations, to spread the use of the term declined in the feminine.
The survey was carried out by the Institute for the Evaluation of Public Policies (IRVAPP) of the Bruno Kessler Foundation (FBK), which produced the following report. The results of the report are the interpretation of the commissioned researchers and not necessarily that of the client (Equal Opportunities Committee of the Rovereto Bar Association) or the funding bodies.