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Multi-culturalism and gender-balanced mediation: How does it work?

In recent years we have seen political changes in some countries that have either forced people to seek greener pastures or opened borders enabling some to emigrate to places such as Australia. Around twenty five percent of Australia’s population was born overseas. It follows then that Australia is a multi-cultural society and with that multi-culturalism comes diversity in family dynamics. As more families from other cultures separate and present at mediation it is vital for Family Dispute Resolution Practitioners to understanding these family dynamics and how they differ from Australian family structures, particularly with respect to the role of the father in the decision-making process.

Decisions within a family unit operating in western culture are generally arrived at through a democratic process with both the wife and husband having input into the outcome. Of course the equality of decision-making will vary within families according to the dynamics of personalities and power within that unit but usually there exists some form of balance. This is not always the case with families from other cultures and religions.

In some cultures and religions men are not only the decision-maker in the family but are also responsible for decisions in the community. Women who have been raised and married in patriarchal families and societies may find the task of making important, independent decisions after separation challenging and more difficult than most of us would understand. Being separated from their husband, in mediation in a foreign country and culture, as well as being expected to make important agreements and decisions around the future of themselves and their children, can be overwhelming for them. They need to have the capacity to negotiate. Family dispute resolution can offer a possible solution to this dilemma that a migrant woman may face and that is a gender-balanced mediation where a male and a female mediator work together in the same room with the two clients. This environment may assist a woman in gaining the power and the capacity to represent themselves in negotiations but also can provide an environment that allows a man to negotiate with his former wife rather than being expected to make all the decisions.

How gender-balanced mediation can work to benefit clients from other cultures?

The Father

Let’s look at it firstly through the eyes of a father who has come from a society where he is expected to make all the decisions within the family and has fulfilled his duty by doing so. This expectation is generational. He has most likely seen his father and grandfather operate from the same premise. The roles of men in some cultures are clearly defined, understood and accepted.

So imagine what it must be like for man who has been encultured in such a way to find himself placed in a room not only with his estranged or ex-wife, who has never been in a position to negotiate with him, but with another woman if the solo mediator is female (outnumbered he may be thinking). Even worse, from his perspective, is if he finds himself in a co-mediation with two female mediators (even more outnumbered now, 3 to 1), and believe me this happens more than you would imagine, particularly if mediation is taking place in one of the larger organisations where male mediators are rare and not always available.

Examples of how gender-balanced mediation may help a man in this position are:

  • The presence of a male mediator in situations such as these gives the father the opportunity to negotiate with his former partner through the male practitioner and effectively elevate his capacity to reach fair and sustainable agreements.
  • Witnessing a male interacting and negotiating with women may serve as an example for him to see the changing roles for himself and his ex-wife in the society in which they now live.
  • Importantly gender-balanced mediation also allows him to save face in front of his ex-wife by negotiating with a man. Saving face in many types of negotiations is often a factor for success.

The Mother

We have seen how gender-balanced mediation can work for men from other cultures but how does it work for women from similar backgrounds?

As previously mentioned, it may be difficult for a woman to face her ex-husband in a room and being required to negotiate with him and make her own decisions around the future of herself and her children.

So, as we found for the men, gender balance in mediation may also assist women to reach fair and sustainable decisions and this can work in several ways:

  • Having a man in the room who is not her ex-husband may give her the opportunity to use the mediator as a conduit. She may feel more comfortable reaching agreements by talking through an unbiased, impartial and independent man. Use of this mediation model may create a more comfortable environment, one she is accustomed to.
  • The presence of the female component of gender-balance may not only allow her to feel “sister support” in the room but also be an example to her of how a strong woman operates in the process of decision-making.
  • Mediation may also serve as an example of how the role of woman in our culture varies from what she experienced in the past. To witness another  woman being actively involved in negotiations, and to witness that woman even challenging (reality checking) the ideas of her ex-husband, may build her confidence in operating in a culture that supports gender equality.

From a practitioner’s perspective working with clients from different cultures is fascinating and always a learning curve. Issues that seem unimportant to us in our Western culture can be so important for others. Saving face is one example and for men in particular this can be the difference between success and failure in mediation.

An Example

Here is an interesting comparison between how the payment of child support is perceived in three cultures. In Australia it is part of law that child support will be paid if families are separated and, putting aside the fact its value and what it represents is often a point of contention, in principle it is accepted by most people. Two families that I recently worked with from other cultures told a different story. For the purpose of maintaining confidentiality I will not reveal the countries from which they came.

The first people informed us that in their culture if a family separates, and the parents divorce, then the Father is always and forever 100% financially responsible for his ex-wife and his children.

The second family were from another culture where if a women is divorced from her husband and claims financial support from him, she is frowned upon by society including other women.

You can imagine how important it is to recognise cultural difference when working with these families and also how a gender balanced mediation may help both men and women to get their heads around how it works in this country.

Greg Argaet is a Perth based mediator and registered Family Dispute Resolution Provider.  Greg spent many years as a successful small business operator before making the transition to counselling and conflict resolution. Completing a BA (Politics and International Studies) and Postgraduate Diploma in Alternative Dispute Resolution, Greg is able to use his high level interpersonal skills to effectively mediate and facilitate rational and meaningful resolution.  He is a practitioner with Gender-Balanced Mediation Services.

Beginning with the Client Assessment

We start with a client assessment interview to determine which model of mediation will work best.  The decision to use a gender-balanced mediation is based on information we gather during the assessment process and what we learn about the dynamics of the relationship between the clients.

We recommend a gender-balanced mediation, with both a male and female mediator present, when issues are identified that may detrimentally affect the ability of either client to operate capably in a mediation session for which the gender-balanced mediation process will assist.

Some examples of the type of issues that favour the gender-balanced mediation model are:

  • Either or both parties stuck rigidly in their own agendas or positions. Sometimes a reality check for clients is required in mediation and is best received from a mediator of the same gender.
  • The presence of a power imbalance based around gender issues. An example of this would be the male partner of an ex-couple controlling all the money from the relationship because he worked and his ex-partner had stayed home with the children. He may not acknowledge her contribution to the relationship because she did not work and contribute directly to their finances.
  • One party holding the belief that due to their gender they command more power in the relationship. This may be a result of a family of origin belief system, peer group influence or religious beliefs.
  • Cultural beliefs that the male in the relationship holds all the power and makes all the decisions for the family.

Benefits of the gender-balanced mediation model

The presence of both genders as mediators often has a profound effect on the success of mediation, for example in “reality checking”.

Mediators use various tools in the mediation process such as reality checking (eg. “So let me ask you Brian, if you are working on a fly-in fly-out roster of four weeks on and one week off, how do you see a 50/50 week about living arrangement working for your three children?”). Reality checking is an important part of mediation and may be quite challenging for certain clients. If that challenge is coming from someone of the same gender it may be accepted and considered more easily.

Impartiality is also essential in a successful mediation. All mediators understand how important client perception of impartiality is. For agreements reached in mediation to remain in place beyond the mediation room both clients need to feel they were heard, acknowledged, fairly treated and had their ideas form part of the final agreement.

We mediators all operate from a place of impartiality however, despite all our efforts, some clients do not always feel that is the case. An example could be a male client feeling overwhelmed and out-numbered in a co-mediation using two female mediators (this is a very common model of mediation) simply because he is in a room with three women being his ex-partner and the two mediators.

Gender-balanced mediation addresses this perception. I have experienced clients sharing with me after their mediation session that a balance of genders was enough to make them feel comfortable around impartiality.

A Tale with an unexpected Twist

An interesting example of how a gender-balanced mediation can work, even unexpectedly, I will relay to you, and conclude with, the story of a session I was involved in a couple of years ago. For confidentiality reasons I have changed their names.

Brittany and David were young parents who had one child but had separated recently. In their assessments it appeared that David was very controlling given his responses to some of the questions and his very confident demeanour. He did accuse Brittany of being stubborn and controlling and this was explored and noted. Brittany presented as quiet and not displaying a lot of confidence. David wanted to establish a shared living arrangement for their young daughter Kylie that, according to Brittany, was not in Kylie’s best interests due to her age. I had assessed David and a female colleague had assessed Brittany. As often happens we, as mediators, discuss cases before the decision is made as to how mediation will work. Our discussions were around how a gender-balanced mediation may work better than a solo (one mediator) or a co-mediation (two female mediators). We both felt that my male presence may work well at two levels. Firstly to give the perception of impartiality (and of course we were) with a balance of males and females in the room and, secondly, if we felt that David needed a reality check or needed to be challenged over certain issues it would be better coming from another man.

Due to certain circumstances mediation was delayed for a few months. As it finally proceeded it became apparent early in the session that Brittany was actually the one who had power and control. She had either become empowered whilst waiting for mediation or had not revealed her true self during assessment.  Nevertheless there was a clear power imbalance in the room in her favour. My female colleague became the one reality checking Brittany rather than me checking David, a role reversal. We worked for two hours with this couple and at the end of mediation they reached some workable, age appropriate agreements that were best for Kylie and fair and sustainable for her parents.

In our post –mediation evaluation forms David expressed his gratitude for having a male and a female mediator in the session as he felt supported and Brittany was happy with how mediation was conducted. She said on her evaluation; “I felt at ease because the two mediators were like my parents”.

Greg Argaet is a Perth based mediator and registered Family Dispute Resolution Provider.  Greg spent many years as a successful small business operator before making the transition to counselling and conflict resolution. Completing a BA (Politics and International Studies) and Postgraduate Diploma in Alternative Dispute Resolution, Greg is able to use his high level interpersonal skills to effectively mediate and facilitate rational and meaningful resolution.  He is a practitioner with Gender-Balanced Mediation Services.