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?
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.
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.
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.