Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Gender Equity and Peace: Let's ALL have a say in conflict resolution

What does gender have to do with war and peace? Old view: "men are from Mars, women are from Venus." New view: it's about equity.

The UN International Day for Peace 2016 has been tied to the 17 Sustainable Development Goals. Gender Equality is goal #5.

When I was a young adult, a popular book was Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus: The Classic Guide to Understanding the Opposite Sex. It encouraged people to accept different styles of interaction it recognized in men and women. Since men were inherently "competitive, individualistic, not into 'caring and sharing,' wanting to be admired for their ability to hang tough and deliver the goods yet unwilling to communicate the fact they need admiration" and women inherently "craving respect from their men, looking for emotional bells and whistles and not so much material status symbols as their men might suppose, prone to cycles of emotional fatigue and dependent on their mates to cherish them" (so the theory went, as summarized by one Amazon reviewer), the way for everyone to get along best is to accept the world as it is and try a little harder to speak each other's language.

This view of two starkly different "sexes" ends up reinforcing a common view about war and peace: it's the guys who are responsible for war -- they can't help themselves, it's biological -- and it's the women who make good peace activists -- because, you know, they're more peaceful.

Boys fight wars, girls heal. (Right?)
(Florence Nightingale -- Natl Lib of Medicine image)
I confess to reaching, myself, for the convenient and comforting idea that women are civilization's great, reliable backstop against the looming destruction of human society via wars cooked up by men. According to this rather magical line of thinking, women's biology provides a kind of guaranteed reservoir of peace elixir, which will surely prevail once unleashed.

But gender is a social construct . . . .

In large part due to the #BlackLivesMatter movement and the movement for LGBTQ justice, I have begun to understand the ways in which categories like race and gender are social constructs, i.e. they function principally to bestow or deny power.

I've come to understand that gender cannot be understood just on the basis of body morphology or biochemistry. A big part of gender -- and a part that is of enormous consequence for conflict and cooperation -- is socially constructed. How we treat each other when we're together has overwhelming importance to this thing called gender.

Walt Whitman, Civil War nurse
Just as focusing on skin pigmentation makes us miss the point that "race" exists to enable some people to claim and maintain privilege, so focusing on estrogen or testosterone makes us miss the point that "gender" exists to enable some people to dominate the conversation and dictate the course of action.

Surprising findings on gender equity

About 18 months ago, I read some startling findings about women and men working together.

Some researchers wanted to know what predictors could be found for teams that were successful at achieving results. To their surprise, they found that the predictors that you might expect -- particularly expertise, past experience, even hard work -- were not the ones that correlated closely with success. Here's what did:

* Successful teams consisted of members who were capable of reading each other's verbal and non-verbal clues, in order to better listen to them.

* The members of successful teams each spoke about an equal amount of the time.

* On average, successful teams had more women.

(See the description of the findings, originally published in Science, in "Why Some Teams Are Smarter Than Others" by Anita Woolley, Thomas W. Mallone and Christopher F. Chabris)

Hey, it's science!
What I found really exciting is the potential to take these findings and follow them up in our own environments. We're all on committees and teams right? We all attend meetings. So go into a meeting and watch what happens. Who gets to speak? Does one person (or a few people) dominate? Are people listening to each other? Have people heard each other, or do they talk over each other?

And what I discovered when I started to pay attention to how these factors operate in my own environment was that there tended to be a very "gendered" environment in a lot of group settings -- a few people (mostly men) doing all the talking, and the rest (mostly women) unable to get a word in edgewise. I also noticed that the gendered nature of the gatherings would tend to snowball -- once people realized there wouldn't be an equal chance for everyone to be heard, they stopped trying to listen to each other and became anxious to simply get a chance to speak.

I noticed a couple of other things. For one thing, I noticed that the more a given meeting fit this pattern, the more likely people were to leave the meeting and behave as if it had never happened. People would just go their own ways, and do whatever it was they were originally planning to do.

I also noticed that if a small effort was made -- "Hey, let's hear from some of the people who haven't had a chance to speak yet" -- it was actually possible to move the proceedings toward equitable participation. And those tended to be the meetings that had noticeable follow-through.

So when we say conflict resolution and peace may have something to do with gender, maybe what we're really saying is that something different happens when people listen to each other . . . when everyone gets an equal chance to speak . . . and when people who are most likely to be denied a place at the table actually get to participate.

Gender Equity, the SDGs, and Peace

Having a say:
Pray the Devil Back to Hell
I have my doubts about whether every single one of the SDGs is of equal importance in bringing us to a world without war.

(I frankly wonder whether eliminating war isn't a precondition for some of them.)

But there is no question in my mind that gender equity is foundational to moving us closer and closer to a world where conflict is addressed through cooperation and compromise, and not through domination and violence.

In fact, in some ways "gender equity" as I understand it -- "everybody gets about an equal chance to be heard" -- may very well be synonymous with "conflict resolution."

Related posts

It will benefit us antiwar activists in the US to attend to and reflect upon the importance of these Sustainable Development Goals to achieving the goal of ending war.

(See PEACE DAY 2016: What comes first? Demilitarization? or Development?)

In a composition suggestive of a yin-yang symbol, a woman in a burka (but wearing audacious red glitter platform heels) is surrounded by genie-ish tableaus of the many male obsessions/pastimes that some of us rail about frequently -- sexualized pop singers, professional sports -- as well as some that we probably should rail about more (such as patriarchy in religion and political violence).

(See VIOLENCE: " . . . and the women must live with the consequences . . . " )

Women Without Men is a recent movie by the artist Shirin Neshat, based on the novel by Shahrnush Parsipur.. The first time I saw it, at the end I walked straight to the ticket window and bought another ticket and walked right back in and watched it again. The film contains haunting scene after haunting scene, and it makes it clear that Iran is a place where people are able to ask questions about patriarchy and about what it is going to take to overcome it.

(See Women Without Men as a US-Iran Cultural Bridge)