Joyce Neu

Founder and Senior Associate | Facilitating Peace

We connected when you responded to the newsletter I wrote about how we should stop saying “guys” to refer to women and you told me that you studied sexism in language as part of your graduate work. What spurred you to study this?

 My doctoral research was a sociolinguistic analysis of the language of negotiation. It so happened that the subjects I ended up studying nicely divided into female pairs, male pairs and some mixed pairs of negotiators.

I started analyzing the data, not looking at all for gender differences. But I kept hitting on these differences in the way the women interacted with each other as opposed to the way the men interacted with each other. So once I finished my dissertation, I looked at what seemed to be gender-based differences in negotiations and published a paper on this, analyzing both the conversational structure and content of the negotiations.

This is something we saw a lot during the US presidential election debates between Hilary Clinton and Donald Trump last autumn.

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In my research, I found that men interrupt women at far greater rates than women interrupt men. In American English, at least, interruptions have been found to be markers of status and power: for example, when you go to see a doctor, you don't usually interrupt the doctor, the doctor interrupts you.

I became interested in whether there was a statistical difference in the data depending on male-female language. The only statistical difference I found, contrary to most gender stereotypes, was that women achieved satisfactory results in their negotiations in substantially less time than men. The all-male pairs spoke talked longer and were less efficient than the all-women pairs.

Since the perception of women as less effective negotiators does not appear to be true, how do we change this view of women negotiators?

Many women in communities in conflict are viewed and turned to as mediators. Here, I would like to make the distinction between a mediator and a negotiator.

In a negotiation, you are representing your agenda and interests. You may feel that you have to speak on behalf of your organization and may be more aggressive than you would be if you weren't wearing the hat of your organization. 

A mediator is there in a different capacity. Women have skills that benefit them greatly as mediators. In many communities, women are turned to to bring the parties together as they know the parties and the issues. I'm not talking about women like you or me who are from outside the conflict, but women who are living in that community, who are often viewed as more trustworthy, as more willing to listen. These qualities may be stereotypically female, but they're also beneficial to a peace process.

You have set up your own organization, Facilitating Peace, that works on those topics.

We do advising, coaching, training, and conflict assessments. We offer support to mediators at both official and unofficial levels. I've not been meditating as I once did but I don't mind being on a different end.

I've  had a good career and I've worked for and with many different people. I spent the first 20 years of my career as an academic, as a linguist who began my career teaching at Penn State University.

I have worked for NGOs and at universities for most of my life. In 2008, I accepted a one-year position with the United Nations' Standby Team of Mediation Experts, a new entity that was being created to provide advising on mediation to UN and other intergovernmental and governmental organizations. This was a one-year commitment and it was my first experience working for an intergovernmental organization.

When that ended, I didn't want to go back to working for anybody else again. I felt I had enough freedom to move where I wanted to live, to be where I wanted to be physically, emotionally, professionally, and intellectually.

Approaching my 60s, I made the choice to do things that were interesting to me and  I've been very fortunate to have had the luxury to do that. Not everybody has that. 

How does Facilitating Peace work?

We're a small network, a bit like law partners. There are no employees, no staff, it is me running the website. It's a one-woman show in some ways, which is not such a great thing. The associates have tried to work together, but because the other associates have full-time positions elsewhere, their availability for consulting is limited.

How do you get projects to work on?

Different ways. For instance, I might see a solicitation that I'm interested in, which is what I used to do.  Some of it was through word of mouth and I would get requests for consultancies.  I also kept looking through different kinds of solicitations through the UN and NGOs.

The last two or three years, I haven't been pounding the pavement for work. It's almost entirely been word of mouth. Some of the things that I get contacted to do are not things where I feel I have much to contribute so I’ve been trying to link other colleagues, especially women and former students and interns with work in this field of conflict resolution.

I am now 66. I am at a point where I can afford to do some activities that I had not taken time to do during most of my working life. For instance, I'm a citizen scientist for the Grey Whale Migration Census.

Grey whales have the longest migration of any mammal on earth and they pass right along our coastline. The whales migrate every year from Alaska down to Mexico to have their calves. There are census points along the migration route where others like the group I'm part of count the whales.

Now, I spend half a day once or twice a week watching whales, counting whales. I’m very lucky. I spend another half a day tutoring homeless kids. I spend one day a week in the pottery studio. For most of my life, I had no time for anything. I still am very passionate about my work and continue to read and learn, but I do appreciate having more of a balance in my life these days.

You have about 40 years of career behind you. How did you organize it? 

I'm both a good model and a bad model because I did not have a plan. I didn't know what I was going to do which is why I went into the Peace Corps. The Peace Corps gave me a couple of years and a skill, which was teaching English as a foreign language. I did that for a while and then I went back to grad school. My plan while I was in colleague was that I would get married and have a family. Of course by the time I was 30 years old I figured, "Okay, well let's get on with it."

I had no clue that conflict resolution existed. I did my dissertation on negotiation but I’d never heard the term “conflict resolution.”  I didn’t know anything about NGOs. It was only when I was teaching at Penn State that I saw an ad for someone to work in the Conflict Resolution Program at The Carter Center that I discovered the term "conflict resolution.".  That was the first time I’d seen the term “conflict resolution.”

I applied for the position in the Conflict Resolution Program and was thrilled to be hired to work at The Carter Center at the age of 41. That was the beginning of my second career. Yet from the first day I started working at the Center, there were different world crises going on and so I joined other staff in making phone calls to experts to learn more about the conflict, what the situation was, and what role, if any, The Carter Center could play in defusing the conflict. 

In fact, as it turned out, I was very fortunate in not getting the job I thought I’d applied for. The job I had expected to get would have been more of the same of what I’d already been doing.  The job I got was far more interesting even though it required a steep learning curve.

What would be your advice to a young woman who wants to go into conflict resolution?

For one thing, as I’ve mentioned, job descriptions may not always turn out to be what the job actually is.  If you like the organization you’re working for, it’s worth taking a chance to see if you like the new challenges (and opportunities).  

If you want to go into conflict resolution, you can work within your own community. That's one of the things I'm increasingly interested in. I'm distressed about what's happening in the United States, with the amount of vitriol and lack of stability. I'm astounded by how ignorant people like me have been not to understand the groundswell of racism, bigotry, xenophobia that's here. If you want to get involved in conflict resolution, start with your own community. Find out about different church groups, community groups, etc.  Develop good facilitation skills -- facilitation is an under-championed skill that can help people share ideas in a civil and productive way. 

If you are a good facilitator (listening to people, encouraging people, getting good ideas out and having efficient meetings), you have a lot to offer in your own community and internationally. If you want to work at high levels of government, then you need to work for an official organization: the government, the UN, the EU, in an area where they are doing some form of conflict analysis or resolution. This may not necessarily be in the political department. 

I was quite impressed (when I worked) with the UN, and how much the UN Development Program is doing in terms of on-the-ground mediation.  This is the same for UN Peacekeeping forces and the UN Department on Peacekeeping Operations as they are mediating every single day. All these departments provide great experience and require really good conflict analysis and resolution skills in getting the work done, whether it's sanitation, global health, or dealing with refugees. It doesn't have to be called conflict resolution, but you will be getting those skills in so many different areas.

Is there anything you wish you had done differently?

There are different points in my life where I know I goofed. One of the mistakes I made was that when I was at The Carter Center, we were working on a difficult conflict in Central Africa. I was walking through the building one day with my boss's boss who was in charge of this project and he said to me, "If I asked you to get on a plane today and go meet with the president of that country, would you be able to do it?" My response, which I think is a gendered one, was, "Well, yes. I would need to read up a little bit on it. I need to know a little more about the conflict. But yes, I think I could do it."

That was the end of the discussion. I was cut out of that project entirely. All this man wanted from me was for me to say, "Yes, I can do it." It didn't matter whether I felt like I could or not.  He wanted me to say I could do it and thereby solve one of the many issues that needed to be checked off. Whether he would have put me on that plane or not, I didn’t know.  We were moving very quickly on that conflict and I felt I needed to be honest about my hesitations.

Although I knew quite a bit about the country, I didn't feel like I was an expert. I don't regret what I said because I was honest, but I missed a great opportunity and a chance I would have succeeded. However, if I had screwed up, I would've felt that a lot of lives would have been negatively impacted by that.

Conflict resolution is a big responsibility. How do you deal with that feeling?

There's always a tremendous responsibility. For me, it's been a bit different because I have not really mediated on behalf of an official organization. My mediation was largely with The Carter Center and not with the UN. With the UN, I was an advisor to mediators but I wasn't actually doing the mediation. I always made sure I went in eyes open, knowing the parties, having met with different people to get different views.

You don't know if you're doing a great job or not. It's really scary to be sitting at that table because there is a lot of responsibility. In one of the mediations I did, I invited a colleague of mine who was a very well-respected author, one of the “fathers” of conflict resolution. I invited him to come with me so that he could see what was going on and offer help. I believed during the process that things were going badly and I didn't know what to do to change that.  I had already asked the parties if they wanted to change mediators, but they refused.

I didn't know if that was good or bad. So I invited my colleague to come with me. He sat next to me. I had wanted him to chair the session, but he refused. He said, "You can't change horses in midstream. I'm going to sit next to you and write you notes." I was sweating, it's hot in the room. He's sending me these little notes saying, "This is very tough going but you are doing the right thing. Keep going." We should all have somebody like that sitting next to us.

I would say that mediation itself is in some ways not as much fun because of the stress and responsibility. I was in awe that people would trust me to do this. I was very appreciative that they did. I thought I was developing good relationships with the parties no matter how good or bad they were, which is the goal of a mediator. You want people to trust you. I think I did that pretty well. Now, I prefer advising and training. I prefer having the chance to meet and learn from different people and groups in the conflict area in order to write these conflict assessments.

As an academic, do you think it’s more important to get some field experience or to go straight into graduate studies?

If young people have a choice of getting out of undergrad and working first, I would recommend it rather than going straight through to grad school. In the United States, if you are seen to have gone to grad school at the same place you did your undergrad, it's not viewed that well, even if it's Harvard or Yale, because you are going to have the same professors and therefore risk not broadening your perspective or knowledge.

However, if you want to go into conflict resolution, you have to go to grad school. Getting a PhD, I hate to say, is almost like a union card today. As far as I know, I'm the only linguist doing conflict resolution at the international level. That background has been very helpful because of the scientific rigor of linguistics.  However, I could have benefitted from a little more policy knowledge.

A PhD. is especially useful for women since it seems that even today, women need more credentials than men. Young women have more difficulty being seen as credible than young men do. Youth is always going to be a challenge, yet some of the smartest people I have met and worked with over the years at my different organizations are younger people who are very sharp, willing to take the initiative yet remain humble, and who are willing to keep learning and growing.