Participedia Features Women as Negotiators around the World

By Aliana Woo, Participedia Project

When Time Magazine featured five women on its 2017 “Person of the Year” cover, it highlighted a culmination of efforts surrounding women’s agency and empowerment. The #MeToo movement engaged almost 12 million in 24 hours on Facebook, and the Women’s March drew millions more.

While social and mass media began to capture women’s voices in a new way in countries like the United States, the topic of women’s empowerment has also been a priority in developing countries as well. As a researcher for the Harvard Ash Center’s Participedia project, I’ve come across several innovations for empowering women’s perspectives that I think are particularly worth sharing.

Consider two recent experiments with what’s called “gender-responsive participatory budgeting”. Gender-responsive participatory budgeting is a policy solution often proposed to address issues related to the participation levels of public voices and women’s voices.

In Penang, Malaysia and Wenling, China, local governments funded gender responsive participatory budgeting projects intended to provide a voice for women and funding for gendered issues in public budget negotiations. Participatory budgeting typically involves community members making budgeting decisions about public funds. Gender responsive participatory budgeting emphasizes women in this process, ensuring a deliberative process that often includes discussion of issues such as childcare, healthcare, housing and wage inequality. Historically, these types of issues have been disadvantaged or kept off the agenda, especially when resources are scarce. A 2016 report from the House of Commons library, for example, found that women shouldered 85% of savings from Treasury austerity measures in the United Kingdom.

Another case, in Kigali, Rwanda, featured a women’s mediation training. Despite research that suggests women and children are disproportionately affected by war, and research that suggests peace last longer when women participate in peacemaking processes, women are excluded from negotiations at remarkable rates. From 1990–2000, for example, only 11% of peace negotiations references women. In response to this, the Kigali project allowed women from the Great Lakes & Horn Region of Africa to gain mediation skills through trainings that included conflict analysis, conflict mapping, interactive simulations, and guest speakers.

For historically marginalised or excluded groups like women, representation in political arenas is incredibly important. Jane Mansbridge, the Adams Professor of Political Leadership and Democratic Values at the Harvard Kennedy School, echoed this when I spoke to her about these cases and women’s perspectives in negotiation. In her research, Mansbridge highlights what she calls “uncrystallized interests” — problems, priorities, or goals that a group may share in common, without being aware of it. Political representation can be one crucial for groups to realize the interests they share in common, and to organize and mobilize to around them. According to Mansbridge, many women’s issues — sexual harassment, unequal pay, access to contraception, daycare services — have remained “uncrystallized” in the United States, and have only “recently appeared in the political arena.” Despite the publicity surrounding the #MeToo movement, “the two major parties have not yet taken stands.”

What’s the solution? Mobilizing women at a grassroots levels is of course essential. But Mansbridge also highlights the importance of mobilizing women in decision making arenas. In other words, making sure women are in powerful negotiating positions. “[T]he more any negotiation involved “uncrystallized interests,” Mansbridge told me, “the more you need the parties with those interests actually at the table, because those interests will not already be known to and thought through by all.” This is crucial point: “even regarding well-politically-processed issues, it is a good idea to have the people who are deeply involved in any issue at the table, to help think through how the issue particularly concerns people like them. But with uncrystallized issues, it is particularly important to have at the negotiating table descriptive representatives of the major groups that will be affected.”

Mansbridge’s words echo what I found in my own research on women’s empowerment programs in developing countries. In the cases I studied, the first step was often to persuade women that they deserved and place at the table. But once women were empowered to be in the room, an entirely new set of obstacles would often emerge. For example, how do I rally support for my agenda? What happens if I am negatively perceived as a negotiator?

I spoke to Hannah Riley Bowles, Chair of the Management and Decision Sciences area at the Kennedy School, who offered her insight on barriers and potential strategies related to involving women in political negotiation. One important note, she states, is that gender negotiations are more about situations than inherent differences. Bowles cites researchers such as Victoria Brescoll, who collected data from U.S. State Senate transcripts to examine trends related to gender, power and volubility within Congress, and Ifat Maoz, who studied perceptions of women as peace negotiators in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Brescoll, for example, found that high-power men speak much more in group settings than low-power men, while high-power women speak about the same amount as low-power women. Similarly, highly voluble men are perceived as competent and suitable leaders, while the inverse is true for highly voluble women.

Along similar lines of situational perceptions, Moaz found data to support the hypotheses that “(1) a compromise proposal offered by female opponents in peace negotiations will be valued more favorably, as more beneficial to one’s’ own side and as less beneficial to the opponent’s’ side, in comparison to the same proposal when offered by male opponents” and “(2) female opponent negotiators offering the compromise proposal will be perceived as significantly higher in warmth and trustworthiness and as significantly lower in assertiveness than male opponent negotiators offering the same proposal”.

These findings highlight the nuances underlying the advancement of women’s leadership and participation. Beliefs that ‘women don’t speak up’ or ‘women don’t ask’ often result from situations where they are perceived negatively and thus rationally respond by staying quiet. Bowles continued, after highlighting these studies, to say that “data on gender and negotiation is often gathered in situations that are counterstereotypical for women — negotiations related to salary, for example, where individuals are expected to advocate for themselves, or make claims to resources that are traditionally masculine.” Given this, the question remains: once women are at the table, how do we create scenarios where they are positively perceived, and have space to advocate for themselves?

The cases I examined in Malaysia, China and Rwanda are significant because they provide insight into this exact concept. Whether it be budget negotiations or peace negotiations, each experiment was an effort to positively empower women as leaders and negotiators that we can learn from and study. It is important that experiments like this continue. While Mansbridge highlighted the importance of getting women at the table to represent their interests, Bowles states that there also “needs to be capacity for people to add to the conversation.” The road to truly empowering women and creating legitimate policy solutions for gender equity requires continued research on getting women to the table, and creating space for them once they are there. Given the spotlight on women’s voices recently, there is momentum to continue this learning. The experiences of women in developing contexts provide important perspectives and insights into empowering women’s voices, and the sharing of this knowledge is important as we move forward.

Challenges to Democracy is the blog of the Democratic Governance Program at the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation, Harvard Kennedy School.

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Research center and think tank at Harvard Kennedy School. Here to talk about democracy, government innovation, and Asia public policy.