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A case for getting more women to the negotiating table

Women can pull us out of the current rut of zero-sum games in conflict resolution
Illustrative: Women in the boardroom. (Pixabay)
Illustrative: Women in the boardroom. (Pixabay)

As I look at the issues that animate our current political discourse — the immigration debate, the healthcare debate, the #MeToo movement, the incessant and perilous chest-beating of world leaders, the growing tension between Americans of conservative and liberal persuasion — I can’t fight the impulse to identify an underlying cause for this upswell of polarization.

We’re at each other’s throats. We can’t seem to work through our problems. Why do effective negotiation and conflict resolution seem increasingly unattainable today? Why is common ground with our ideological opponents rarer than ever before?

What’s the silver bullet that could make our negotiations not only more harmonious, but more productive as well?

Well, here’s a thought: Let’s get more women to the negotiating table.

To be fair, the feminist cause has made great advances in the past several decades. More than ever, women are assuming their rightful place as leaders of industry; they are stepping into roles as high-powered executives at some of the biggest and most important organizations and governments in the world. Sheryl Sandberg, Angela Merkel, and Indra Nooyi are paragons of this progress. In many ways, we are closer than ever to shattering the proverbial glass ceiling.

And yet… we are not quite there yet. We haven’t fully closed the gap on gender equality. And there’s one area in particular in which I’ve noticed this to be the case: conflict negotiation is still dominated by a largely uniform group of people (read: men) with a largely uniform perspective on how to get what they want. This has a profound effect on all levels of society — and in my opinion, it’s not a positive effect.

My grounding for this assessment isn’t intuition alone. I recently came across some astounding statistics published by the United Nations on the topic of women at the negotiating table. The report finds that “between 1992 and 2011, only four percent of signatories to peace agreements and less than 10% of negotiators at peace tables were women.” Further, “in peace processes between 1992 and 2011 women made up only: 2% of Chief Mediators, 4% of Witnesses and Signatories, 9% of Negotiators.”

Of course, I can’t speak with authority on matters of global import such as international peace treaties. But I’ve noticed this gender gap within my own sphere, the Jewish organizational world. And so it has become personal for me, an issue to which I’ve given thought a lot of thought.

Why Should We Care? What We Stand to GIVE

Why should we “make a big deal” about getting women to the negotiating table? Well, the first answer is obvious, but important to repeat: It’s the right thing to do. As a matter of principle, as a matter of fairness, we should strive for more equal representation when it comes to hashing out the issues that divide us. I’ve looked out at too many boardrooms and seen a homogeneous groups of men deliberating on conflicts and issues that have an effect on the entire community, not just men.

Now, is it possible that many women don’t want to assume these roles? Surely, and that is their prerogative. But I do believe that we as a community can do a better job of lowering the barrier of entry for women who do want the opportunity to assume the mantle of responsibility.

Why Should We Care? What We Stand to GAIN

But I believe it’s about more than just striving for equality — having more women at the negotiating table is about more than what we stand to give, but what we, as a society, stand to gain. In other words, this inclusion will improve our outcomes. That same study from the UN mentioned above found that “when women are included in peace processes there is a 20% increase in the probability of an agreement lasting at least two years, and a 35% increase in the probability of an agreement lasting at least 15 years.” Another study, conducted by the Council on Foreign Relations, found that “the participation of civil society groups, including women’s organizations, makes a peace agreement 64% less likely to fail.” So there’s a real case to be made that women have a positive effect on the outcome of negotiations.

An (Admittedly Ungrounded) Gender Theory

Why do women have a positive effect on the outcome of negotiations, as opposed to when those negotiations are attended by a largely homogeneous group of men?

I don’t have an empirical answer to that question, but I do have a theory. I know I’m wading into the murky (and perilous) waters of gender discourse here — I’m no anthropologist (although I have purchased a copy of Yuval Noah Harrari’s Sapiens — that counts, right?) — but I believe that many men are driven (to varying degrees) by the primal identity of the hunter. Men have an urge to win and conquer the “field of battle,” whether that field is a literal one or in the boardroom. Even negotiation, then, is viewed as a zero-sum game, with the possible outcomes being total victory or utter defeat.

Whether a result of nature or nurture, women are very often more adept at problem-solving and conflict resolution than men are. This has been true throughout most of history, where women have been the unifiers of the family and home. The man may have built the house, but it was the woman who held it together — listening, empathizing, and compromising to get things done.

Perhaps this theory can explain why, with men and only men at the helm, the middle ground seems to have all but disappeared. Men have brought this all or nothing thinking to bear on the process of conflict resolution, and it hasn’t been pretty. Perhaps it’s time for a different approach — a distinctly female approach, unique to the female perspective.

Focusing on Our Own Community

Now, as I mentioned before, I can’t speak with any measure of expertise or authority about geopolitical issues on the global scale. What I can do is speak to my own world, the Modern Orthodox Jewish community. What would our community look like if we got women to the negotiating table?

The irony of my own profile as a run-of-the-mill, male head-of-school of a Jewish day school does not escape me. Still, I can recognize what it is I see, and that is that the overwhelming majority of participants in our very own communal debates of policy and procedure are men.

I see this in particular at the inter-school level in the Jewish day school world. Once, we had an issue that was coming to a head between the various high schools and middle schools in the area. The schools were effectively bidding against each other, and costing the community valuable resources in the process. We got together to hash out the issue, and I recall being struck by the fact that everyone in that boardroom was male. I wonder now how that fact affected the outcome of those negotiations.

In our synagogues, too — the site of oft-lamented “shul politics” — men seem to dominate the discussions. Before I came to Los Angeles, I had a front-row seat to the process of a group breaking away from a shul to form another minyan. It was bitter, it was ugly, and the discussions between the parties only seemed to cause the relationships to devolve further and further. Almost no women were present for those tense discussions. I wonder how they might have changed the tenor of the discussion.

I would even tangentially mention the issue of women’s clergy and titles that we have spoken a lot about this year. Not on the level of p’sak (halakhic decisions), which is for the poskim (decisors of Jewish law), but on the level of politics. So, for instance, once we have a p’sak from the Orthodox Union, how do we go about implementing that in a way that takes into account existing realities and different institutions with varying worldviews, commitments, and needs? Women should be involved in those discussions, and they are likely to steer us towards more cordial and more productive outcomes.

‘So What Will You Do About It?’

I feel quite privileged to be a part of a school that has such an aspirational quality to it, always asking how we can do better and how we can model our values. Which, in this context, leads to an obvious and necessary question: What are we going to do about the lack of women at our negotiating tables?

Well, I’m only going to speak for myself, and I will readily admit that I have not always been the best at this.

I, like many heads of school, have what is sometimes referred to as a “kitchen cabinet” — a small group of advisers to be utilized for counsel when I am in a difficult position or need to get something done quickly. This has served me well at our school, as there was much work to be done in the early years of my tenure and we were under intense constraints to get it done.

A couple of years ago, I was having a heart to heart conversation with the president of our board, who pointed out to me that this kitchen cabinet was filled by men. “You don’t have a female voice,” she said. “You’re missing an important piece. It certainly doesn’t have to be me, but it would add a tremendous amount.” She was totally right. In that moment, I asked her to join the kitchen cabinet, and she’s been a trusted adviser ever since. Even as I was writing this piece, I realized that I could do more to bring the female perspective into the day-to-day conflict resolution that I encounter.

To Close

Even within our own small sphere, I know that affecting this change will not be easy. Still, I urge leaders in the Jewish community to make a commitment to bringing women to the negotiating table. The current demographics of our leadership does not just leave us with a lack of equality, but denies us the benefits of female diplomacy which can be a unifying approach to the issues that divide us. We are all unified in the goal of drawing our Jewish communities to ever greater spiritual and secular accomplishments. I hope that, by welcoming women into this process, we will find ourselves equipped to reach heights we haven’t yet imagined.

About the Author
Rabbi Ari Segal is Head of School at Shalhevet High School, in California.
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