United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 mandated an increase in women’s participation in peace processes at all levels to better represent interests, concerns, and outcomes of conflict. Women and children are disproportionately impacted by major international conflict, and often left largely responsible for bringing their communities together in the aftermath of death and destruction.
But fixing under-representation is not only about introducing more women, but also looking at how mediation is being carried out. Mediation has traditionally depended heavily on high-level personalities, mostly male. It is time to move toward more innovative and modern working methods, where mediation is more of a team effort and women and men are on an equal footing. It is simply about the best person, or people, for the job. Greater diversity, equity, and inclusion is critical for unbiased, sustainable outcomes.
Applying a Gender Lens
As a mediator and arbitrator, I bring to my colleagues an understanding of the psychology behind emotion and the neuroscience of the brain. Understanding the physiology and triggers behind emotional reactions helps us to apply a broader array of strategic, intentional, and highly effective techniques to navigate through closure and resolution.
It is important to note, however, the ‘science’ is mixed. Some studies have shown distinct differences in brain structure between males and females, explaining some of the nuances in behavioral differences. However, other studies have been unable to replicate these findings.
Scientists and researchers generally study four primary areas to differences in the male and female brains: processing; chemistry; structure; and activity. The brain differences tend not to be as great as what we might expect. However, some common perceptions of behavior persist:
- Men are better at performing single tasks; women are better at multi-tasking.
- Women are better at attention, word memory and social cognition, and verbal abilities.
- Men are better at spatial processing and sensorimotor speed.
- Women are better at fine-motor coordination and retrieving information from long-term memory.
Additionally, females are typically viewed as more relational-oriented, facilitative, collaborative, empathetic, creative, and emotionally focused.
Science has shown, however, that females tend to be better at detecting disgust and sadness, while males are more in tune with detecting happy body states.
But let’s look at what some other research says, rooted in the field of mediation.
Attributes Predominant Among Female Mediators
The longitudinal work of Catherine Turner among female mediators in Northern Ireland is insightful regarding the unique qualities women bring to the negotiation table.
In ‘Soft Ways of Doing Hard Things,’ , she highlights the different ‘soft’ skills brought to mediation by women. They tend to display greater “gender sensitivity” to their work based on their own experience of being women and seeing or experiencing gendered inequalities. They also demonstrate greater reliance on experience and context-sensitive knowledge that enables them to navigate conflict and avoid exclusion, taking in the big picture as well as the details underlying the emotional conflict present, not just the facts and the law.
Another interesting highlight is that males in negotiation tended to view female dispute resolution professionals as non-threatening, as the element of competition and ego in the male-to-male scenario is lacking. The opportunities to build trust and foster relationships were greater, leading to a pathway for resolution and closure.
Turner further expounded a vision of mediation, promulgated by 88 feminist scholars, that is less about power relations and hierarchy, and more about the relational aspects of conflict, with an increased ability to listen and negotiate with empathy when confronted with those one does not agree.
It seems that the ability of women to tap into the ‘soft side’ of emotions lends itself to helping all parties feel heard, and their emotional needs being met. How does this contribute to sustainable outcomes? Let’s look.
Sustainable Outcomes Achieved
Existing research in the field of women, peace, and security suggests that women create more sustainable agreements when included in peace processes. The inclusion of women tends to lead to broader national ownership and support for the negotiated agreements reached.
Female perspectives also bring a different understanding of causes and consequences of conflict, allowing for more flexible thinking in generating more options for proposals.
This represents an overarching theme of the work at the United Nations and the web of new women’s mediation networks, four of which have emerged since 2015: Nordic Women Mediators, FemWise-Africa, the Mediterranean Women Mediators Network, and, most recently, the Commonwealth Women’s Network.
Gender differences do affect power relations in society, and influences what is expected, allowed, and valued in male-female dynamics and context.
Female mediators do bring unique and different perspectives to the mediation table that can enhance the quality and effectiveness of the process.
However, it is important to note that these advantages are not exclusive to female mediators, nor is it meant to imply that male mediators lack these qualities. Instead, they reflect some of the general trends and patterns that have been observed in the field of mediation that lead to achievable and sustainable outcomes.
Increasing the representation and participation of female mediators can only enrich the pool of expertise and skills available for peacemaking at all levels. It will also contribute to more inclusive, sustainable, and gender-responsive outcomes.
While female mediators may exhibit some natural tendencies that contribute to conflict resolution, these traits are indeed learnable. I advocate for all dispute resolution training programs to embrace this mindset for structure plus connection.