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Women, Power Imbalance and the Alternative Dispute Resolution Process

Ann Carey

The court litigation had spanned ten and a half years. The cost to each party was an enormous investment of time, emotion, and hundreds of thousands of dollars. Ten men were at the mediation table. I was the only woman in the room. The dispute was resolved in approximately seven hours. After the agreement was reached, an attorney approached me privately. He told me the matter had finally settled because I was present. Why? I did not say very much during the proceedings. Is it possible that my presence alone tempered their usual battle strategy? This point struck me. Never underestimate the power a woman may bring to the dispute resolution process. 

When it comes to conflict resolution, women throughout history have played significant roles. Two women immediately come to mind: Harriet Tubman and Deborah from the Bible. 

Harriet Tubman was an African American abolitionist. She was a perceptive, spiritually sensitive, and remarkably courageous female warrior. Some biographies report that she was instrumental in leading hundreds of slaves from bondage to freedom. Maybe we should consider following her example and actively work to abolish, or at least minimize, power imbalances. Incorporating a woman into dispute resolution proceedings can provide a remarkable balance, equity, and fairness to the process.

The scriptures report that Deborah was a “judge,” “prophetess,” and “warrior.” She victoriously led the men of Israel into battle and won. Another woman in this account was single handedly responsible for the ultimate victory in that same battle (Judges 4). 

In today’s world, the Christian community, regardless of the forum established to address a dispute, should not hesitate to bring skilled, talented, and perceptive women into the process. Incorporating women often changes the dynamic, adding a level of balance in observation, listening, and, when appropriate, addressing potential issues of overreach due to a power imbalance. Women may also be sensitive to more personal issues that ought to be identified and addressed privately rather than in the group setting. Privacy often opens doors to deeper concerns that may be important to the terms of an agreement. 

Private conversations between co-mediators provide the opportunity to discuss observations that may have been misinterpreted by the other. When a woman is part of this, she may bring much-needed insight, equality, and balance to conflict resolution.

There is no new sin under the sun. Power imbalance is not a new issue for men or for women. Early in history, Cain killed his brother Abel out of anger and jealousy. (Genesis 4:8) In addition, abuses of power exist everywhere: home, work, church, sports and other hierarchical positions of authority. It is especially important to be cognizant of this when it comes to women; throughout history, women have been undereducated.  Even my own parents did not believe in higher education for women. Women had to fight for equal rights to vote. When I started practicing law, it was still a male dominated industry. Still today, many women are often paid less than a man for the same work product. 

Please understand, I am not saying that all women are victims or completely innocent when it comes to power struggles. There are some truly powerful and dangerous women in this world. And, unfortunately there are men that become victims to these women. 

We live in a sinful, fallen world, in which spiritual warfare is a compelling challenge for us all. Therefore, be wise when discerning this power to subjugate and abuse others. Guard your heart above all things and don’t ignore indications of manipulation, control, or abuse of others.  

Unfortunately, power imbalances exist in every walk of life: personal relationships, home, school, neighborhood, business/work, church, and politics. And, they’re presented in many shapes and forms: sexual, racial, financial, positional, or hierarchal authority and/or religious leadership. Regardless of arena or form, it is wrong on so many levels when power is used improperly to manipulate, coerce or destroy another for one’s own benefit .  

So in the world of Christian conflict resolution, we ought not assume equality between the contending parties. We must strive to provide an even-handed process and ensure equality between parties. This may be as simple as adding a qualified woman to a male dominated panel.

Imperative to the work of Christian conciliation is making a true effort to provide a compassionate, fair, and reasoned process. Being informed requires sensitivity to the ability of one party to intimidate or silence another. It would be wise to provide, in advance, a questionnaire or screening for abusive behaviors. When questioning someone, do not ignore the indicators. Oftentimes, a truly abused person will not tell a linear story. They may have forgotten, or buried a memory that is still too painful. They may suffer from PTSD and react strongly when a particular sensitivity is triggered. Seek the truth. We ought to be trauma-informed, perceptive listeners. Ask questions that will gather important and significant information. It is imperative to the work of Christian conciliation and that we make every effort to provide a compassionate, fair, equitable and reasoned process. The unique sensitivities of skilled women are a bonus to the equation. At times, women have been instrumental in controlling the course of events.

When an imbalance is identified, determine the risks. Is there any danger of physical, emotional, or financial harm? If we fail to be reasonably informed and evaluate the potential issues, the harm to the receiving party may be irreparable. Serving as a female advocate for women involved in legal disputes or charges before a tribunal, there have been times when I have needed to hire private security because of palpable threats to their lives. Often, the dangerous party appears before the tribunal as if he or she is not a threat of any kind. Without supporting testimony, the threatening party has often been considered credible. In one of my cases, the craft of deception had developed to the point of presenting as another personality. 

The heartbeat of Christian conciliation must be rooted in truth and righteousness. We are all aware that power can be used for good purposes — healing, restoring, forgiving. Or, it can be wielded as a weapon of destruction. When an imbalance is identified, be smart. Calculate the potential risks. Create a management and safety plan appropriate to quash any unfair treatment against the disadvantaged party. Think it through. Would it be better for the parties to seek justice through the court systems? If so, make that recommendation and provide options to consider for security. The goal ought to be to provide a reasoned, fair and balanced process. 

In conclusion, it is incumbent upon us to evaluate the best options for protecting a disadvantaged party. Do not hesitate to bring a trained and skilled woman to the table. Their observation and listening skills are often tuned into a different wavelength than a man’s. When the dispute resolution forum or tribunal provides a measure of physical and emotional safety and security, it creates a remarkable opportunity for a fair and just resolution to the conflict. That is our goal. ♦

Ann D. Carey has been licensed and practiced law before the bench and jury in six states, federal and appellate courts. Two of her cases have gone to the Delaware Supreme Court and one to the U.S. Supreme Court. She has also been Certified in Christian Counseling, Conciliation and Alternative Dispute Resolution. Ann has served as a mediator/arbitrator for more than 33 years serving state court systems, the legal, professional and Christian community.

Recommended Citation

Carey, Ann. “Power Imbalance in the Christian Conciliation Process.” Canopy Forum, June 17, 2022. https://canopyforum.org/2022/06/17/power-imbalance-in-the-christian-conciliation-process