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The Value of Gender Matching in Co-Mediation

A Forward on Gender

The authors understand that gender is not binary and that gender matching is not limited to a male and female co-mediating; however, most existing research treats this as the norm. We also understand that gender is not a 1:1 match and that mediators could match participants in some aspects of gender, gender roles, or gender personalities, but not others. We hope that future research will take into account the diversity of the gender spectrum. 

A Critical Question with Profound Implications

For the first time during the mediation, the gender composition of the mediation room felt maladjusted. As one of the authors co-mediated a virtual divorce case with a fellow male co-mediator, the conversation veered into the couple’s sex life. Suddenly, the lack of gender balance tangibly entered the room, and the author sensed the wife’s discomfort in the presence of three cis-gender males.  The author checked in with the wife to clarify if she felt comfortable with her husband discussing the topic, and she quickly demanded an end to the conversation concerning intimacy. Although the mediation continued, the incident remained on the author’s mind in the following months. His all-male co-mediation team accentuated the gender imbalance, yet, the author perceived that the same feeling would arise if he had mediated the case alone.

This moment surfaced a critical question: to what extent does gender matching between mediators and parties affect parties’ experience and perception of neutrality in mediation? With CDRCs operating within a co-mediation model that does not ensure that the gender makeup of the mediation team matches the genders of the parties and most private mediators practicing solo, what are the effects of gender imbalance on parties, and what opportunities does gender matching mediation offer? As mediators who practice together and alone, these questions offered us an opportunity for data-backed exploration with relevant findings.

The Case for Gender Matching in Co-Mediation

 Gender-matched co-mediation, or mediation in which each party’s gender is represented by one or both mediators, can positively impact parties, the mediation process, and even the field of mediation.  Though there are many ways in which gender matching in co-mediation can enrich the process, this article will focus on two. First, when the gender balance of co-mediators matches the gender balance of mediation participants, participants are more likely to perceive the mediation as fair and neutral. This higher level of neutrality will lead participants to participate more actively and in good faith in mediation and therefore come out with longer-lasting agreements. Second, even the perception of power imbalance can impact how parties behave in mediation. Gender matching mediators with parties offers a tangible way of addressing parties’ perceptions of fairness and empowering them in the mediation room. 

Significant Findings on Gender Matching and Party Perception

In 2009, Dr. Lorig Charkoudian and Ellen Wayne researched whether differences in the “relationship between participants’ and mediators’ gender and racial/ethnic backgrounds” affect participants’ perceptions of fairness in mediation. Drawing on a sample population of participants across five northeastern states, they performed a quantitative study of 70 cases (roughly half of which were co-mediated). The cases primarily dealt with interpersonal community and family disputes mediated by volunteers of varying experience and training. Before and after each mediation, parties answered a questionnaire about their demographic background, dispute experience, prior knowledge of mediation, and experience within mediation. Mediators also answered a survey collecting demographic information and data on their orientation toward mediation. In addition, researchers sat in on each mediation, coding participants’ behavior.  

Charkoudian and Wayne explored the impact of two critical demographic variables: mediations in which the mediator(s) did not match the parties’ gender or race/ethnicity and mediations in which only one party shared the gender or race of the mediator(s). In other words, do parties perceive fairness and experience higher satisfaction in mediation when neither, or only one, party shares an outward identity of the mediator(s)? 

Notably, the study found that gender matching between parties and mediator(s) significantly impacted participant perception of the mediation. Specifically, in cases where only one party shared the mediator’s gender identity, the isolated party reported greater feelings of unfairness and dissatisfaction with aspects of the mediation than when neither participant matched the mediator’s gender. When outnumbered by gender in mediation, parties were significantly less likely to feel like the mediator “listened to them without judging” or perceive “effective communication.” These same participants were likelier to feel like “the mediator took sides.” Interestingly, in mediations with no gender match, participants were significantly less likely to perceive the mediator as neutral and experience satisfaction with the process.

Gender Matching Mediation and Perceptions of Fairness

            Studies routinely show that perceived fairness in a system leads to participant buy-in, success, and increased happiness. That is true for the legal system, in the workplace, and even for people’s attitudes toward society. Perceptions of fairness can significantly impact the success of a mediation.  When parties perceive the mediation as fair, they report greater “success.” They are also more likely to reach an agreement, be satisfied with that agreement, and achieve their goals for mediation. What’s especially notable is that in one study, complainants viewed the mediation as successful, even when only respondents reported the mediation as fair. Similarly, when parties feel the process is fair, they are more likely to comply with the agreement and even develop good relationships or repair existing relationships with the other party. What is truly “fair” and “neutral’ is often impossible to assess. However, creating an environment that parties perceive as neutral from the very start of the mediation can make a mediation that satisfies all parties involved.

Gender Matching Mediation and Party Empowerment

Secondly, Charkoudian and Wayne’s findings indicate that matching co-mediators’ and participants’ genders offers a tangible way of decreasing parties’ perceived power imbalances in mediation. For example, a father may perceive a lack of fairness in mediation due to cultural perceptions of women as primary caregivers. As a result, he may conclude that he is facing an uphill battle for joint or full custody of the children. The data suggests that a lack of gender matching between the mediators and parties could amplify his perception of unfairness.   This risks diminishing his feeling of safety and trust in the potential of equitable outcomes.  Whether perceived or actual, they experience a process with unequal scales – a power imbalance. Their perception risks cutting them off from two crucial promises of mediation: neutral or multi-partial support and the ability to assert self-determination. Of course, providing a mediation team that shares the same gender composition of the parties does not foreclose the possibility of participants perceiving an unfair process. However, it does offer an evidence-based practice for diminishing the chances that a perceived power imbalance results from a lack of representation. 

Conclusion

Much of the research assumes parties are cisgender and in heterosexual partnerships. Given the positive effects of gender-matching between mediators and parties revealed in studies to date, we expect that transgender, non-binary, and other participants would report similar results. However, further research on gender matching in mediation with same-sex couples and trans and non-binary parties is necessary to ensure the field’s knowledge accurately represents the diversity of those seeking mediation. Similarly, the research doesn’t consider differing modalities of mediation, such as transformative, evaluative, and facilitative. The style of mediation may have an impact as well.

Nonetheless, it is clear that gender matching co-mediation, at least in family mediation, in which the gender makeup of the mediators reflects the gender makeup of the parties, can tremendously impact the mediation. It can increase the parties’ perception of mediation’s fairness and willingness to participate and adhere to the process. It can also help address issues of power imbalance and mediator bias. 

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