The Gender Agenda and International Women’s Day

The Gender Agenda and International Women’s Day

Today International Women’s Day is celebrated around the world. According to the United Nations, it is a time to reflect on progress made, to call for change and to celebrate acts of courage and determination by ordinary women who have played an extraordinary role in the history of their countries and communities. The theme of this year’s International Women’s Day is “The Gender Agenda: Gaining Momentum.” So in light of this, I take a look at how the female mediator is gaining momentum.

‘It is past time for women to take their rightful place, side by side with men, in the rooms where the fates of peoples, where their children’s and grandchildren’s fates, are decided.’

Hilary Clinton

According to UN Women, fewer than 3% of signatories to peace agreements are women and no woman has been appointed Chief or Lead peace mediator in UN-sponsored peace talks. It’s clear then that at the peace table, where crucial decisions about post-conflict recovery and governance are made, women are conspicuously underrepresented.

Indeed, the world of international diplomacy has been dominated by men for many years, but it is encouraging to note that more recently we have seen on the world stage Madeleine Albright, Condoleezza Rice, Hilary Clinton and Christine Lagarde. Have they have brought different qualities to the negotiating table than Bill Clinton, Colin Powell, Tony Blair or George Mitchell? I think so. They certainly get more comments on their clothing while men seem to receive more interest and plaudits for the kind of cigars they smoke or the sort of telephone they use.  At least in the case of Dominique Strauss-Kahn!

Are Male Mediators from Mars & Female Mediators from Venus?

‘Different though the sexes are, they inter-mix. In every human being a vacillation from one sex to the other takes place, and often it is only the clothes that keep the male or female likeness, while underneath the sex is the very opposite of what it is above.’

Virginia Woolf

In his book ‘The Essential Difference’, Simon Baron-Cohen looks at how the minds of men and women work differently. He looks at biology and brain structure and shows that while males have a greater aptitude for systemisation and visual-spatial awareness tasks, the female brain is a natural empathizer and has a flair for language. Women are better at non-verbal communication and foster cooperation rather than competition. In 2003, Hermann et al. conducted a survey of mediators in the United States which indicated that female mediators ascribed more importance to parties’ emotions and nonverbal behaviour, compared with their male peers, who emphasized a more instrumental, settlement-oriented attitude. In another piece of research it was claimed that women emphasise communication and speak either of “facilitating communication” or “communication and process.” While men tended to mention only “facilitating process.”

The differences between male and female communication can be summed up as ‘report-talk versus rapport-talk’; for men talk is a means to maintain status and negotiate, for women talk establishes connections and relationships.

Essentially, what these studies show us is that regardless of sex, all mediators enter the mediation room with one goal – to assist the parties in reaching an agreement. However, what is evident is that there is perhaps a link between women’s language skills and their preferred choice in ‘facilitating communication’ between the parties.

From my own experience in mediating high end commercial disputes, when I am selected by clients I get to see the interesting correspondence leading up to mediator selection. Predominantly the people I am competing against are male and I don’t think I have yet seen a letter with four women’s names. I guess it is a matter of perception that the male is seen as having greater authority and may be perceived as tougher for some of the challenging environments for which mediators have to work.  In reality this turns out not to be correct as toughness comes from being able to manage difficult personalities which good women do very well.

CEDR has done some research in to this and in general clients do seem to choose women to mediate ‘emotional’ disputes and may tend to choose men when looking for a mediator with a ‘robust’ style.  If the mediation involves highly ranked positions such as CEOs or senior partners they often tend to prefer a man and when there is an imbalance between the parties, women are seen as being more fair at counterbalancing the disparity.

The female mediator is certainly gaining momentum… but what more can be done to promote female mediators especially for complex commercial mediations and international political disputes? I think the answer lies, not in focusing on the gender strengths which female mediators bring to the table, but rather to focus on just the strengths which female mediators bring to the table. To echo the sentiments of Christabel Pankhurst ‘Ability is sexless.’

Read the full article by Eileen Carroll, The Gender Agenda: The Female Mediator Gaining Momentum? here.

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