Gender, Conflict and Conflict Resolution

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.

                        author

Juliana Birkhoff

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… MORE >

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