Charles Habib Malik, a Lebanese academic, diplomat, and philosopher, said, “the fastest way to change society is to mobilize the women of the world.”1  Women are catalysts, confidants, innovators, advocates, educators, leaders, mentors, and peacemakers. “Women have the voice and power to be agents of change.”2

Yet, women have and continue to struggle to enter professions dominated by men, to sit at negotiating tables, and to stand “in the room where it happened.”3 This world, however, is not inhabited by only one sex. Women comprise 49.6 percent of the world’s population.4 Men and women represent humankind equally. Equality, however, remains elusive.

Male counterparts often ignore or overlook women’s voices and needs. In times of conflict and during attempts to resolve conflict, the lack of women’s presence and participation equates to half of the affected population’s concerns not being adequately addressed. How can leaders of nations, communities, organizations, or businesses believe that peace will last when only half of the population sits at the table?

It requires both men and women to effectively advance issues, innovate and strategize for the future, build trusted relationships, solve complex problems, and create balanced results. By leveraging, engaging, and embracing both men and women, the goal of lasting peace is significantly more attainable.

Mobilizing more women in the peace process and mediation is a win-win; however, involving women has its challenges. Like other professions, gender differences, norms, mindset, culture and customs, roles and responsibilities, expectations, perceptions, stereotypes as well as personal goals and limitations can impact a woman’s opportunities and create challenges. Specifically, understanding and navigating cultural differences can directly impact a woman’s acceptance and success as a mediator.

This paper addresses some of the hurdles women mediators face, specifically those associated with culture. Also, this paper explores the attributes females offer to the peace process and the impact of involving women in mediation and negotiations.


“What would men be without women?” Mark Twain wrote. “Scarce, sir…mighty scarce.”5 One goal of mediation is to bring people together who seek to resolve disagreements or conflicts in a non-violent way. Interestingly, a process and profession dedicated to “bringing people together” to solve a conflict at the same time is guilty of not involving or embracing “bringing women” in as mediators or chief negotiators.

Women play a significant role in pursuing peace, whether as stakeholders impacted by conflict, or as mediators working to help parties improve relations and resolve problems. The lack of women involved in the peace process, however, is staggering, with a mere nine percent participating in peace processes.6 A consensus exists among international actors regarding the need to involve women; however, advancements in this area have been slow despite resolutions and decrees encouraging such inclusion.7 Including women in peace talks and mediation can significantly improve outcomes. For example, one study found that gender-diverse teams are 15% more likely to outperform all-male or male-dominated teams; the percentage increases (35%) for ethnic and racially diverse teams.8 Turner and Heyworth write:

Studies measuring the ‘collective intelligence’ of a team found that it was higher when team members take turns and are emotionally sensitive to one another’s needs; and when more women were in the team. This was attributed to the extra level of ‘social sensitivity’ women brought to team dynamics.9

Work on this issue cannot go unrecognized. Many embrace women’s involvement in peace processes and have worked diligently toward increasing inclusion. This year marks several anniversaries regarding women’s movements, including the UN Security Council Resolution 1325, which turns 20 years old this year. This landmark resolution aimed to advance women’s participation in peace and security.10 Unfortunately, this and other decrees have not resulted in their intended expansion of women’s involvement. The UN Secretary-General noted in his 2017 report on Women, Peace, and Security, that women continue to be underrepresented in negotiation delegations and as chief negotiators.11 More work is needed to mobilize and involve women in mediation processes.


As said by Pulitzer Prize-winner Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, “well-behaved women seldom make history.”12 It is important to note that many powerful and influential women have led the way. We can learn from their successes and failures how, or how not, to lead, negotiate, and mediate. These “mobilizers” made significant changes, often causing conflict, resolving conflict, or both.

Although there may be some reluctance by women to challenge traditional norms or politically sensitive situations, examples of women doing just that are abundant.”13 History reminds us that the power of women is not a new phenomenon.

As early as 240-275, Zenobia, a Palmyrene Empire (Syria) queen, challenged the authority of the Roman Empire. She conquered Egypt, Anatolia, Lebanon, and Roman Judea.14

Empress Wu Zetian (624-705) was the only female emperor in Chinese history, living during the Tang Dynasty. She expanded the Chinese empire, elevated the economy, and reformed education. However, her critics accused her of ruthlessness and cruelty. Historians report that she may have killed her daughter and son as part of political intrigue.15

One cannot mention great women rulers without highlighting Elizabeth I (1533-1603) and Queen Victoria (1819-1901). Elizabeth I ruled from 1558 until 1603, a time known as the Elizabethan Era.16

The adulation bestowed upon her [Elizabeth I] both in her lifetime and in the ensuing centuries was not altogether a spontaneous effusion. It was the result of a carefully crafted, brilliantly executed campaign in which the queen fashioned herself as the glittering symbol of the nation’s destiny.17

Queen Victoria ruled for 63 years; she defined the Victorian Era. She abolished slavery, granted voting rights to most British men, reformed labor conditions, and made significant cultural, political, and military changes.18 From her journal, Tuesday, 20 June 1837 at Kensington Palace:

Since it has pleased Providence to place me in this station, I shall do my utmost to fulfill my duty towards my country; I am very young and perhaps in many, though not in all things, inexperienced, I am sure, that very few have more real goodwill and more real desire to do what is fit and right than I have.19

One does not need to look so long ago, however, for examples of respected and important women leaders. Margaret Thatcher (1925-2013) was the first woman to hold the position of Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. Known as the “Iron Lady” by the Soviets for her “hardheadedness,” Thatcher was often criticized for her divisive policies, harsh politics, and hostility toward institutions of the British welfare state. On the other hand, supporters note her transformation of Britain’s economy and long-lasting impact on political debate.20

Forbes ranked Angela Merkel the most powerful woman in the world. As the first female Chancellor of Germany, she steered Germany through a financial crisis; however, she also faces constant challenges with Brexit and growing anti-immigrant sentiment in Europe.21

Three women have served as the U.S. Secretary State—Madeleine Albright, Condoleezza Rice, and Hillary Clinton. Each of these women brought diverse platforms and worked on critical issues across nations. In September 1995, Hillary Clinton, as First Lady to the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, said, “if there is one message that echoes forth from this conference, let it be that human rights are women’s rights and women’s rights are human rights, once and for all.”22 More than 20 years later, the fight for this truth still lingers.

Although public servants and politicians may first come to mind as avenues to shape policies and peace, women in other capacities can also make substantial differences and contributions, as seen with Oprah Winfrey, Beyoncé Knowles, Serena Williams, and Melinda Gates. Seventeen-year-old Greta Thunberg, a Swedish activist for climate change, and 87 years old Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who has advocated for women’s rights for decades, are reminders that influence has no age limit.23

What do these examples mean to the female mediator? Successful mediation is rooted in strong leadership, effective communications and listening skills, savvy negotiation capabilities, empathy and compassion, innovative and proactive planning, understanding and embracing cultural differences, and acting in a balanced and impartial manner. Past and current female leaders inspire and remind us of the choices we have today and what obstacles they overcame.24 The women highlighted in this section are diverse in their family life, education, race, and religion. They represent multiple nations and political parties and embody unique cultures and belief systems. They likely agree on many topics and disagree on others. The common denominator is that they are women—strong, risk-takers with a desire, determination, and passion for excelling and changing the world.

Albeit few women are involved in peace processes, serve as mediators or diplomats, and hold higher offices; however, there are still women advancing these areas, serving as advocates, and raising their voices. The UN Women and the Commission on the Status of Women are examples of institutions that work to further equality, women’s rights, women’s empowerment, and promote women’s involvement in peace.25 Women, such as Millicent Otieno, Regina Odofle Thompson, Prabha Sankaranarayan, and Elahe Amani, epitomize the success and impact of women mediators.26 If more women are in these roles, it will become the norm.27


Hillary Clinton said, “women are the largest untapped reservoir of talent in the world.”28 In addition to representing almost half of the population and understanding the negative consequences of conflict on women, women bring “soft” skills to mediation, and they can serve as catalysts to women’s empowerment.29

One example of these soft skills includes listening. Listening is a critical component of mediation. Often, women excel at listening; they offer intuition and empathy and can see “unspoken” words. Women are relational, decisive, and organized. Some may view a quiet persona as negative; however, this approach enables women to examine indirect cues, observe others, and build rapport. In addition, women can be less assertive than men. Men are generally more dominating, threatening, and place their ego at a higher priority than women. The lack or lessened amount of these latter characteristics in women plus their strong interpersonal skills, can create a warm and welcoming environment.30,31 Involving women in mediation can make others feel comfortable and build trust.32 “Women have been repeatedly assessed as having greater competence/capability on a range of emotional intelligence indexes such as empathy, service orientation, developing others, transparency, and inspirational leadership.”33

Women are also flexible, organized, and open to unexpected outcomes, alternatives, and non-assigned paths.34 Furthermore, existing research suggests that when women are included in peace processes, they create more sustainable agreements.35

Women’s experience of war (as combatants or civilians) and of peace is often better heard and better put on the table by women mediators or by women they involve in the mediation process. Women often lead civil society organizations and are critical to the public acceptance and implementation of peace settlements. Moreover, ensuring that women participate in designing the ground rules of a peace process increases the chances of their effective participation in that process, both at the negotiating table and in public fora.36

Women can see, understand, and connect with other women in a way that empowers women and helps bring their voices and needs to the forefront.37 The world has only seen the tip of the iceberg as it relates to the individual and collective talents of women.


Paulo Coelho, a Brazilian lyricist, and novelist said, “the way up to the top of the mountain is always longer than you think. Don’t fool yourself, the moment will arrive when what seemed so near is still very far.” Even with men and women working to increase the number of women involved in peace processes, between 1992 and 2018, women constituted only 13 percent of negotiators, 3 percent of mediators, and 4 percent of signatories in major peace processes.38 So, the question is:

Will men with guns deal only with other men with guns? After all, the vast majority of combatants are male. If conflict parties are prepared to accept an outsider as a mediator, can they go a step beyond the ‘otherness’ of the foreigner to accept that this outsider might also be a woman?39

From physical differences to economics, family dynamics to social expectations, gender differences impact all aspects of human interaction. Gender also shapes political power and representation.40 Successful female mediators must recognize the challenges in their line of work to be mindful of their approaches and to navigate complex, multilayered situations. Female mediators must be aware of the cultural context and understand that in negotiations (and in life itself), gender and culture are intertwined.41 Women mediators must understand the challenges they may face as mediators, as well as the impediments endured by the conflicted parties and the stakeholders. Overlooking, under-examining, or misinterpreting signals can negatively impact a women’s acceptance as a mediator, and ultimately, the conflict resolution process.

Culture clash

Billions of people inhabit the planet, each with their point of view, experience, strengths, and flaws. Where people are born, raised, and live to shape their beliefs, perspectives, biases, and decision-making. In mediation, there are often differences among parties, specifically cultural clashes that can hinder (and sometimes halt) communications, increase the complexity of negotiations, and impact the outcome of mediation processes.42 Also, there is as much diversity within a culture as between cultures.43

Like an iceberg, what lies beneath the surface creates the most chaos. Nine-tenths of our culture is submerged from conscious awareness. This hidden part of culture influences our understanding of the world, our place in it, and our value systems. For example,

…we can see men and women, but we cannot see the collection of assumptions, expectations, and obligations that, in a particular culture, define men and women. Ideas about what men and women do and what characteristics they possess, therefore, are parts of our cultural makeup.44

Culture impacts many components: a sense of self and space, communication and language, dress and appearance, food and eating habits, time and time consciousness, relationships, family and friends; values and norms; beliefs and attitudes; mental processes and learning style; and work habits and practices.45

The assumptions we make about what we see and experience are derived from our cultural framework. A cultural framework is a highly gendered lens, meaning that everything we know and understand about culture has implications for men and women.46

Biases and stereotyping continue to impede women. There are still societies where men may not converse with women who are not related to them.47 In other areas, men may perceive women as “soft” and, therefore, do not take them seriously or believe they will be able to handle difficult issues.48

A woman’s family life, even her age, can be perceived as weakness. Some think that women should take care of the household and serve as the primary caregiver to children, while the man pursues his profession.49 Mediators are often sent to dangerous locations, which may impact a woman’s ability or desire to participate based on safety concerns. Women of childbearing age are also often perceived as unable to participate due to other priorities. Are these issues really problems? According to Turner—no. Mediators typically are between 55 and 75 years old.”50 If a woman had a family life or children, they would likely be adult age by this time and not impact a woman’s ability to serve as a mediator or support peace processes. But these truths are often overshadowed by assumptions.

One perspective of a woman mediator is that she will automatically be more concerned with issues facing women and will try to advance those issues as part of the mediation process.51 This assumption, however, is not always the case. For example, a study conducted via interviews with 13 women mediators in Northern Ireland found that none of the women considered their role as a mediator to advance women’s equality or women’s rights.52 They believed that “being feminist in one’s personal political beliefs did not entail bringing those beliefs to the table as mediators. Also, Potter asserts:

Male mediators and policy-makers also often express, indirectly, a concern that women will dwell disproportionately on ‘women’s issues’ in mediation. While many women refer to more equitable sharing of power and resources among men and women, the evidence does not exist that their interests are solely limited to that. A more common problem, some might claim, is that some women in senior public life have not been concerned enough with advancing gender equality. In addition, and to compound the perceived unfairness, the corresponding concern that men in senior public life might be disproportionately preoccupied with issues that affect only men is rarely used against them, despite the fact that it is proven that they have a tendency to ignore ‘women’s issues.’ 54

Mediation is not a place for campaigning. Personal agendas are not welcome or appropriate. Commingling efforts would “be contrary to the values of mediation.”55

Cross-Cultural Preparation

Women mediators and peacekeepers have challenges and opportunities before, during, and after conflict. By considering a few foundational factors, women can maximize their strengths, prepare for challenges, and strive to ensure acceptance and success.

Cross-cultural preparation enables all mediators the opportunity to understand, leverage, and avoid problems during the mediation process.

Mediators should not only be able to speak and read the local language (or have reliable interpreters who can) but should also be familiar with the local cultural styles of communication: for instance, forms of courtesy; uses of humor; patterns of reciprocity; and ways of conveying respect, gratitude, or disapproval and of declining an offer or expressing criticism. Cross-cultural preparation will make communication more effective and help the mediator avoid unintentional damage.56

Cultural identity is another area to consider. As it pertains to women mediators, gender is an obvious aspect; however, other items such as nationality, ethnicity, and religion can impact mediation. Mediators should prepare for how these and other elements may be interpreted or perceived during mediation.”57

Understanding and recognizing strong feelings and being equipped to address people with their emotions also help the mediation process. Cultures deal with emotions differently. In some cultures, it is normal and expected that people in a conflict would express anger or sadness freely. In others, people view the direct or open expression of anger as disgraceful or deeply insulting to others. Mediators’ self-awareness and understanding of their habits as it relates to emotion as well as sensing others’ emotions are critical skills. In addition, having a range of responses available to draw from helps mediators align options that fit the situation.58 Mediators need to be comfortable with a variety of approaches and choose accordingly.59

Mediators should watch, consider, and respond to body language, appropriateness, whether it is dress, behavior, or humor, communication protocols, associations, entitlements, international law, normative frameworks, and rituals.60,61

…the mediator has to have a good understanding of the culture(s) of those s/he is dealing with to try to bridge the divide between the mediator and mediated and between the conflict parties, so do men and women in terms of how they talk to one another…increased sensitivity to conversational ritual in terms of both gender and culture would be extremely valuable to the mediators’ work, which is, after all, highly psychological. It involves using communication to try to control or transform a complex and volatile situation. Thus, it comes down in the end, again, to power: ‘The ability to influence others, to be listened to, to get your way rather than having to do what others want.62

It is critical to avoid assuming, challenge stereotypes, and embrace diversity. By keeping an open mind and promoting tolerance, people can make conscious decisions to break free from norms and accept new or different ways of thinking.

Looking at all of the influences that contribute to the formation of perceptions, it is tempting to conclude that we are putty in the hands of these influences, that we are but powerless spectators watching our perceptions rule our lives. Nothing could be more misleading. We choose our perceptions; we have the power to determine what they are and how they influence our behavior. We do not have to be slaves to our own desires, or the pressure of other people, or the patterns of a society, or culture. We can take charge of our own perceptions, and strengthen our skills in clarifying them.63

Being a good and effective female mediator is the same as being a good mediator. It is about preparation, understanding, and impartiality. Mediators must develop trust and relationships, listen and communicate effectively, and offer transformative approaches and options.64,65,66 By using ones’ knowledge, experience, interests, and compassion, mediators can connect with people, which can result in turning the corner in negotiations. For example, Turner shares how a mediator who washed dishes with female stakeholders made a lasting impact on the mediation process:

What can be generalized from this account is not a rule that washing dishes should be included in the mediators ‘toolkit’, but that sensitivity to local mores and customs (whereby the women did the dishes after a meeting) allowed the mediator to navigate the conflict dynamics and engage marginalized groups in the process. This idea of engaging culturally sensitive and context specific knowledge in relation to gender roles can be translated across cultures precisely because it does not rely on universal or expert knowledge for its success.67

The bottom line is that mediation teams should include a balance of men and women. Every person, even within gender or culture, is unique and brings their own specific experiences, beliefs, and skills to a situation. The more diversity included, the better the outcome for the majority.68


Prof. Daniel Erdmann said, “mediation is as diverse as the human individual that makes use of it.”69 Every person, regardless of gender, age, race, religion, marital status, family life, education, culture, or experience, is unique. Embracing these differences can generate innovative solutions, maximize strengths, build trusted relationships, and result in long-lasting positive outcomes for communities around the globe. Without balanced approaches, conflict is likely to return. When mediators take the time—whether they are men or women—to look inside themselves, connect with humanity, and embrace other’s differences, they will make great use of mediation.

This paper explored the challenges and opportunities for female mediators. Culture, perceptions, and expectations can significantly impact the success of female mediators. Women have numerous unique attributes to bring to negotiations that have long-term impacts on peace. The United Nations and other prominent organizations must support additional measures that increase women’s participation in peace processes at all levels while breaking down outdated and unfounded stereotypes. Inclusive processes should be the rule, not the exception.

But no gender can do this alone. Both men and women mediators are agents of change. Just like working to balance the needs of conflicted parties, balancing the representation of women and men in mediation and conflict resolution will enhance the process and result in grounded solutions. Ensuring cross-cultural preparation will help advance mediation efforts, acceptance of mediators, and, ultimately, support long-term peace efforts.

During the Ireland study, the interviewed women commented on how they drew on their experience of being a woman. In other situations, however, they turned to different strategies, such as drawing from the community background or insider/outsider status. The study reported, “the skills they demonstrated were those of a good mediator, not necessarily those of a good woman.”70


1, 12  The Cultureur | For the Modern Global Citizen. “50 Powerful Quotes About Women,” March 7, 2016.

5  “A Quote by Mark Twain.” Accessed July 4, 2020.

21  “Angela Merkel.” Accessed June 30, 2020.

16, 17  “Elizabeth I | Biography, Facts, Mother, & Death | Britannica.” Accessed June 30, 2020.

69  Erdmann, Daniel. “World Mediation Organization.” Accessed July 1, 2020.

3  “Hamilton (Hardcover) (Lin-Manuel Miranda & Jeremy McCarter).” Accessed June 29, 2020.

6  Hedström, Jenny, Thiyumi Senarathna, and International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, eds. Women in Conflict and Peace. Stockholm, Sweden: International IDEA, 2015.

22  Washington Week. “Hillary Clinton Declares ‘Women’s Rights Are Human Rights,’” September 4, 2015.

18  Kirsty, Oram. “Victoria (r. 1837-1901).” Text. The Royal Family, December 31, 2015.

20  “Margaret Thatcher Foundation.” Accessed June 30, 2020.

23  McDowell, Erin. “35 of the Most Powerful Women in the World in 2020.” Business Insider. Accessed June 30, 2020.

30, 39, 47, 49, 50, 51, 54  Potter, Antonia. “We the Women: Why Conflict Mediation Is Not Just a Job for Men,” October 2005, 20.

36, 56, 57  Smith, Amy L., and David R. Smock. Managing a Mediation Process: U.S. Institute of Peace Press, 2013.

62  Tannen, Deborah. Talking from 9 to 5: Women and Men at Work: Language, Sex and Power. London: Virago Press, 1994.

14, 15  “Top 15 Most Powerful Women in History – Big Think.” Accessed June 29, 2020.

29, 31, 34, 35, 37, 43, 48, 52, 53, 55, 64, 65, 66, 67, 70  Turner, Catherine. “‘Soft Ways of Doing Hard Things’: Women Mediators and the Question of Gender in Mediation.” Peacebuilding 0, no. 0 (October 16, 2019): 1–19.

8, 9, 33  Turner, Dr. Catherine, and Fleur Heyworth. “Advancing Inclusive Mediation Through the Lens of Leadership,” n.d., 15.

61, 68  “UN Guidance for Effective Mediation.Pdf,” 2012.

25  UN Women. “UN Women.” Accessed July 1, 2020.

19  “Victoria.Pdf.” Accessed July 3, 2020.

63  Weeks, Dudley. The Eight Essential Steps to Conflict Resolution: Preserving Relationships at Work, at Home, and in the Community. Reprint edition. New York: TarcherPerigee, 1994.

2  PeaceWomen. “Why Women, Peace and Security,” November 6, 2014.

10  “WMG-HLPF-2020-Position-Paper.Pdf.” Accessed June 26, 2020.

28  “Women Are the Largest Untapped Reservoir of… – Quote.” Accessed July 4, 2020.

26  Mediators Beyond Borders International. “Women In Peacebuilding.” Accessed July 3, 2020.

38  Council on Foreign Relations. “Women’s Participation in Peace Processes | CFR Interactives.” Accessed July 1, 2020.

11, 13, 24, 40, 41, 42, 44, 45, 46, 59, 60  World Mediation Organization. “World Mediation Organization. Anthological Correlation: Mediation & Conflict Management,” 2008.

4  “World Population 2020 | Population Clock Live.” Accessed June 28, 2020.

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