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<xTITLE>Gender, Conflict and Conflict Resolution</xTITLE>

Gender, Conflict and Conflict Resolution

by Juliana E. Birkhoff
Juliana Birkhoff
Gender affects and indeed permeates, conflict dynamics at the societal and individual level. Understanding the role of gender in conflict is best accomplished through an analysis of individual levels, interactional levels and the societal level.

Within these three levels of analysis there are also two radically different gender paradigms that direct the research agendas of social scientists working in this area.

The essentialist paradigm assumes a separate female world, one in which women are by nature different from men. In this view women are by nature so completely different from men that we experience a different reality. This perspective focuses on women's caring, cooperative, and peaceful attributes. Some of these studies focus on women's maternal abilities as shapers of our roles as caretakers and peacemakers.

The other paradigm denies the assumptions that women and men have essential natures. As a matter of fact, it denies the essential nature of anything. Post-modern feminism focuses on the exchange between the social construction of individuals and the individual's constitution of themselves. By focusing on language, symbols, alternative discourses, and meaning, post-modern feminism studies how social power is exercised and how social relations of gender, class and race can be transformed. This doesn't rule out the specificity of women's experiences, and their differences from men, since under patriarchy women have differential access to the discursive field.

At the societal level, patriarchy is characterized by historic discrimination and injustice reproduced in institutions and ideologies. Assumptions about male superiority pervade our thought processes. The life experiences on which the claims of the dominant ideologies have been founded have been the experiences of men, not women. Patriarchy, like other dictatorships, controls reality. Women and men are socialized within rigid gender expectations. Institutions such as the church, the family, and the law reproduce these biases in norms, rules and laws. Women have historically been subjugated politically, economically and culturally. This institutional system of oppression and injustice directly creates disputes, sustains and escalates other conflicts and invades all other human interactions.

At the interactional level there are a number of studies. Gender may surface in conflicts in the ways that parties interpret and give meaning to the conflict. Patricia Gwartney-Gibbs studied how gender affects the origins, processes and outcomes of disputes in the workplace. Gwartney-Gibbs' research found differences in the origins of disputes for men and women. The social construction of the workplace conditions the way that women formulate their grievances and the ways that supervisors translate them. Although both men and women had problems in the workplace which were associated with interpersonal relations, women reported more personality conflicts than men and seemed more sensitive to them. Women also experienced more conflicts over gender role stereotypes. Gender role stereotypes cause problems if the stereotype has little to do with the requirements of the job.

Gender also affected dispute handling mechanisms. The processes used to resolve disputes for women were less effective than for men. For example, women were more often transferred laterally instead of resolving the dispute.

The outcomes of the processes were also different for men than for women. Women's disputes seldom were framed as falling within the contract so they received more individual responses to their disputes. Since women were more often transferred laterally, there was a direct impact on women's earnings in the workplace. This research project shows that women experience different disputes in the workplace, their disputes are handled differently from men's and the outcomes are different for the two groups. This study is important because it directly correlates the gender differences in workplace dispute origins, processes and outcomes to patterns in employment inequality.

Looking at the institutions of dispute handling, Terrell Northrup and Marshall Segall compared men and women's experiences with community mediation. Their study analyzed differences in women and men's feelings of vulnerability and empowerment. The researchers hypothesized that women feel vulnerable in day-to day relations, especially with men. Women's sense of vulnerability would be particularly salient in conflict situations since there is a potential for aggression and violence.

The researchers found that women more often reported feeling scared or vulnerable than did men. Women were significantly more likely to feel vulnerable in conflicts with men than in conflicts with other women. Women were more likely to talk about being afraid of normal conflict and of being the victim of aggression or violence. Women reported that concerns about children, identity and status contributed to their vulnerability in conflicts. Lack of support from significant others and lack of trust in the other party also reinforced feelings of vulnerability.

Women and men also differed in the ways that they talked about their conflicts. Women talked in-depth and at length about the context of the dispute, particularly focusing on their involvement in the relationship with the other party. Men used more rational, linear and legalistic language to talk about their disputes. Women talked about fairness in a way that incorporated both their material interests and the network of relationships in the dispute.

Contrary to what the researchers expected, the women in the study used significantly more strategies and more kinds of strategies to resolve conflicts than did men. Also unexpectedly, women were no more concerned than were men with maintaining a positive relationship with the other party. Finally, women were as concerned with resolving the particular issue as were men.

While women felt more vulnerable, their vulnerability did not seem to interfere with their ability to actively handle their disputes. However, women talked at length about feeling disempowered and disadvantaged in attempting to deal with their conflicts. Northrup focuses on how men and women's essentially different realities may lead us to understand conflict differently and therefore to approach conflict resolution differently.

Deborah Kolb studied women as "peacemakers" in organizations. The women she studied acted as informal peacemakers within their organizations. The women got involved in people's conflicts because coworkers sought them out. They provided a sympathetic ear to their coworkers. They also became involved because they were loyal to the organization but also cared how the organization treated people. They provided support for people to tell their story, they reframed peoples understandings of the situation, they translated people's perceptions of each other, they orchestrated occasions for private conflicts to be made public. Women in the study were ambivalent about their role and skills as peacemakers within the organization. They feel that the important role they fill in the organization is not understood or appreciated. Conflicts that are more systemic or structural may be individualized and depoliticized by their approach to peacemaking.

Deborah Kolb's earlier work focused on how women's ways of understanding the world based upon essential differences affected their conduct in negotiations. Kolb focused on four themes that define women's place in negotiations: a relational view of others, a contextual and related definition of self and situation, an understanding of control through empowerment, and problem solving through dialogue. Women's voices are different because of early social development and women's places in negotiation are different because of structural systems of discrimination.

Carol Watson examined whether gender or power was a better predictor of manager's negotiation behavior. She hypothesized that perceived gender differences in negotiation behavior are an artifact of status and power differences between men and women. This study provides a more realistic review of the legitimacy of such gender stereotypes by comparing the effects of power and gender on negotiator behavior.

Watson found that power was a better predictor of the feelings, behavior and outcomes of managerial negotiations than was gender. In the study, women felt neither more cooperative nor less competitive than men. Women engaged in less subordinating behavior and more threatening behavior. Participants in the high power role, regardless of gender felt more competitive before the negotiation, expected greater cooperation from their opponents, felt more powerful, more in control, and felt more satisfied with the decision than those in the low power role. Her study demonstrates that observed gender differences in negotiations are an artifact of men's and women's status and power in the U.S.

However, managerial women felt significantly less confident about negotiating than managerial men did, and women were particularly uncomfortable when negotiating with another woman. Women did not enjoy the roleplay and were very uncomfortable with whatever role was assigned to them. Women also underrated their performance compared to men.

These research studies illuminate some of the complexities of studying the role and effect of gender in conflict. Future research should focus on gender differences of parties and third party intervenors. Research should focus on how gender influences the ways that conflict is seen, felt and understood by individuals and groups. Research on gender expands the ways that we think about conflict, justice and social change.


Juliana E. Birkhoff is an experienced mediator, facilitator, trainer, and conflict resolution scholar. She focuses her practice on complex scientific and technical problems about water quality and quantity, watershed planning and restoration, land use and development, pesticides and chemicals policies and community right to know issues, and other natural resources and public health issues.

She has conducted extensive research on collaboration and consensus building. Her previous research include best practices for integrating complex scientific and technical information into collaborative processes, how to integrate scientific and community knowledge in consensus-building, and several evaluations of consensus building processes.

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