The Literature on Women and Negotiation: A Recap

Vol 18 No. 3


Thirty years of research on gender and negotiation have yielded a complex picture. Although research has established factors and contextual situations that appear to enhance women’s willingness to speak up and negotiate, most studies have been conducted in laboratory settings using cases and simulations.[i] What remains to be fully researched and understood are the factors that support women as they learn to speak up and negotiate in the “real world” of the workplace and home environment. Yet, some studies remind us that women can—and often have—learned to speak up and negotiate.[ii] These journeys are ones that deserve close examination and discussion in our field.

From our perspective as practitioners, we have seen women have tremendous breakthroughs in their attitudes and understanding of what negotiating can be. When women experience success in negotiation, even in simulated cases during negotiation training sessions, we have witnessed life-changing moments.

At the same time, we recognize that negotiating is often seen as anathema for women. Women can have barriers in the form of mindsets or attitudes that appear to hinder, or even stop, their willingness to consider learning about negotiation. We are conscious of the risk of reinforcing stereotypes and conclude that our role is to help women move past these barriers by enhancing their understanding of their personal strengths and potential as negotiators.

Since the 1970s, a plethora of studies have been conducted about negotiation and gender. In the early years, studies examined whether men were better at negotiation than women in terms of one variable—the negotiated outcome, or who “won.” The findings from these early studies were inconclusive and at times contradictory.[iii] In Deborah Kolb’s overview of the past 25 years of research on gender and negotiation, she notes that this early research had an “essentialist” concept of gender differences, trying to identify an innate or “hard-wired” difference in how men and women negotiate.[iv] While dozens of studies have sought to answer if men and women negotiate differently, it turned out that the story was far, far more complex.

Much of today’s research on gender and negotiation is shaped by the thinking of authors who believe that individuals “construct” their understanding of situations (and the behaviors required in those situations) based on the details of the particular context and their own individual backgrounds. In this social-constructivist view, gender is not a fixed notion or simple unchanging attribute like a person’s eye color. The constructivists view gender “as an institutionalized system of social and cultural practices” that can change as a person moves through different communities and institutions.[v]

During most of the 1970s and early 1980s, research on gender and negotiation was directed at discovering if the two genders had different, and perhaps innate, abilities or approaches to negotiation, typically measured by the size of the final negotiated agreement and the conflict resolution style used. One extensive literature review found a “marginal and inconsistent relationship between gender and negotiation outcomes.”[vi]

In the late 1980s and 1990s, a majority of research on gender and negotiation focused on identifying individual differences. Walters, Stuhlmacher, and Meyer (1998) conducted a meta-analysis of 62 studies on gender and “bargaining competitiveness.” Their conclusion was that women do appear to behave more cooperatively in negotiations than men. However, when the studies were aggregated, the difference was slight—less than 1 percent of the variance was accounted for by negotiator competitiveness.[vii] They commented that specific constraints on negotiators such as restrictions on communication between the individuals lessen gender differences. In the studies that allowed more communication, and particularly face-to-face communication, the gender differences were larger, and women behaved far more cooperatively than the men. The authors speculate that the setting activated women’s gender stereotypes, or gender schemas, eliciting cooperative behaviors. It appears that men and women were interpreting contextual signals differently. The authors note that “even small variations in experimental conditions can eliminate the [gender] differences entirely, or more surprisingly, cause them to change direction.”[viii] This important point deserved further study, which it received in the field.

Many studies in the 1990s focused on how specific situations elicited or did not elicit gender differences. Most of these studies used salary and compensation cases as their means to explore this issue. A 1999 literature review of these studies by Stuhlmacher and Walters found that women generally have lower negotiated compensation outcomes but that situational details were key. For example, in some of the studies, the difference in power of the two parties affected the individuals’ negotiating behaviors.[ix] Women given the role of the boss negotiated better outcomes compared to when they were given the role of employee. Other studies indicated that when cases present the potential for collaborative (or win-win) outcomes, women negotiate better than the men.[x]

In short, after another decade of research studies on gender and negotiation, the findings suggested that there are situations where women’s negotiating does not match that of men, and there are situations where women’s behavior does match, and sometimes exceeds, that of men.

The idea that women might be responding with gendered behavior under particular conditions became a new focus of research. The field of gender and negotiation started to explore in detail how the context of a particular negotiation might impact a women’s behavior, for example, when a woman reacts to clues in the situation about what is “expected” for women and then fulfills those expectations.

Research in the last decade has shown the diversity—and strength—of contextual factors in terms of how and why individuals negotiate. By changing the context, setting, and details of a case study so that women are negotiating on behalf of another (a client or a child) rather than themselves, women improve their negotiated outcomes.[xi] Women given higher levels of relative power in a case do as well as men.[xii] Interviews with women show the impact of many women’s “concern about the relationship” and lack of interest in “winning.”[xiii]

Factors of Self-Efficacy, Attitudes to Handling Conflict, and Empathy

Research has also shown the negative impact of women’s lack of self-efficacy about their bargaining abilities. In one study, women who did not expect to do well at negotiating made less effort, tending to give in and settle for what was offered quickly rather than bargain.[xiv] Attitudes to handling conflict and improving over time are also relevant; some individuals believe that they are “bad” at handling conflict and cannot change.[xv] These women are unlikely to seek out information about how to learn to negotiate.

Women’s generally higher levels of empathy and skill at reading facial signals may give them a possible advantage in some negotiations but put them at risk of lower outcomes in other negotiations.[xvi] For example, when women place a higher importance on the relationship than on winning, they can be reluctant to speak up. It seems that some women seek to be liked and do not want to appear demanding, greedy, or argumentative. This desire to put-the-relationship-first sometimes results in an overly accommodating style, which is often detrimental to their interests.[xvii]

Factor of Explicit Contextual Variables

Individuals are most successful when they make careful decisions about the negotiating styles to use and when they select appropriate tactics based on the specific contextual variables. Edmondson and Smith conducted a study showing how individuals do not always act rationally by presenting the appropriate style. When upset by “hot topics,” many individuals who have been educated about negotiation styles still revert to old negotiation behavior patterns and are unable to negotiate to their full potential.[xviii] Research by Callanan and Perri shows how individuals of both genders are highly attuned to the many contextual variables within negotiations—the question is how they interpret and act on those variables.[xix]

Factor of Gender Stereotypes

Some gender and negotiation research examines contextual situations and relevant factors supporting women in their negotiations and their learning about how to negotiate. In a series of studies on stereotypes, Kray, Thompson, and Galinsky activated the gender stereotypes by telling male and female MBA students that individuals who are “rational and assertive” rather than “passive or overly accommodating” will do well negotiating a specific case. In this first condition, the males negotiated higher outcomes than the females. In the second condition, the researchers made the statement above and added the following phrase: “Because these personality characteristics tend to vary across gender, male and female students have been shown to differ in their performance of this task.”[xx] Under this condition, the female MBA students exhibited stereotype reactance and rejected the stereotyped behavior; they negotiated higher outcomes than the male MBA students. In a follow up study, the same authors explored what happens when participants are told that “people skills” are key to a negotiation (something that many in our culture believe women are better at than men). In this manipulation, the female students once again outperformed the men.[xxi]

Factor of Supporting Programs to Guide Planning

In another relevant study, participants were educated on two forms of goals orientation. When men and women received only “goal setting training,” both genders improved, but the gender difference in negotiated outcomes remained. For the second group, the researchers also used a protocol called self-management to support and scaffold the women as they prepared to negotiate. The self-management training included short lectures and then class discussions using examples (such as a weight-loss plan) based on these five steps: (1) identifying obstacles; (2) planning to overcome obstacles; (3) setting goals regarding obstacles; (4) picking ways to self-monitor progress; and (5) picking ways to self-reward achievement, and then a written class exercise to develop a plan to follow during salary negotiations. This protocol equalized the negotiating outcomes between the male and female participants.[xxii]

Patton discussed the “Interpersonal Skills for Negotiation and for Life” class that was developed at Harvard. This approach to negotiation training emphasizes individualized work in an “intensive, safe, and interactive environment” so that students can try roles “that they would ordinarily not permit themselves [due to] social or family conditioning.”  This course has distinctive features, including regular input and guidance for students from a professional who has advanced training in psychology and family dynamics. The faculty and students report genuine improvement in participants’ interpersonal skills, with many students experiencing an “epiphany” about handling difficult interpersonal situations.[xxiii]

Context is Key

From our overview of research relating to women and negotiation, several conclusions are clear.  The first, shared by many researchers, is: for both women and men, context is key. Who are the participants in the negotiation? What is the environment in which they are negotiating? What is their formal relationship and how well do they know each other? What has already happened that may affect the negotiation? Are the key elements on the table of equal interest to both parties? Are any key elements of more concern to one gender than another? How likely are they to have a long-term relationship? And, of course, how does the backdrop of historical gender relations inform the context? Participants should think through these as well as other elements of the context before they plan a negotiation, and while we know this as ADR practitioners, we should also focus on helping our clients understand that approaching negotiation systematically in this way is something they can learn and incorporate into their daily lives.

Another conclusion is: the style of negotiating must be suited to the context.  Because studies show that some women avoid negotiating in realms considered masculine such as compensation,[xxiv] women should bring a consciousness of what may be gender-conforming behavior, and make the effort not to fall into gender-stereotypical behavior. Another potential gender “trap” is conceding too much too quickly, especially if a woman is in a self-advocacy situation. Women can learn to reflect and consider what approach to take to specific negotiations, including deciding what style of negotiating is likely to be most effective.[xxv] As addressed elsewhere in this issue, choosing a negotiation style is not a simple dichotomy of a competitive (male) approach versus an accommodative (female) one. Without a consideration of the whole context, any negotiator will find it difficult to select the right style or tactics. Only with a careful review of the relevant elements of the context and an awareness of the potential gender issues involved can a negotiator—particularly a woman—be positioned to make a reasoned, justifiable, and conscious choice about what negotiating style to use.


Our review of recent studies also reminds us that we must continue to emphasize that any individual can learn to negotiate. Learning to negotiate certainly takes effort and time; for some individuals, learning to negotiate may require much more time than for others. Learning to negotiate is rarely a quick fix because longstanding habits and attitudes must be examined and changed. Just as learning to drive involves more than taking a single afternoon behind the wheel, learning to negotiate is a process—one that takes practice on stormy as well as sunny days, on highways as well as back roads. To gain a familiarity and comfort using different tactics that are fully suited to the situation and paying attention to creating the best conditions for positive negotiation outcomes takes time, reflection on what works and doesn’t work, and increasing self-awareness. As negotiation trainers and coaches, we can remind students and clients of this fact and shape their learning experiences to support the process. 

[i] Deborah Kolb, Too Bad for the Women or Does It Have to Be? Gender and Negotiation Research over the Past Twenty-Five Years, 25 Negot. J. 515 (2009).

[ii] Dorothy E. Weaver, How Professional Women Learn to Speak up and Negotiate for Themselves in the Workplace, Teachers College, Columbia University Dissertation (May 2011), ProQuest Dissertations and Theses, available at

[iii] Hannah Bowles, Linda Babcock & Kathleen McGinn, Constraints and Triggers: Situational Mechanics of Gender in Negotiation. 89 J. of Personality and Social Psych. 951 (2005); Jeffrey Rubin & Bert Brown, The Social Psychology of Negotiation (1975); Leigh Thompson, Negotiation Behavior and Outcomes: Empirical Evidence and Theoretical Issues, 108 Psych. Bulletin 515 (1990); Amy Walters, Alice Stuhlmacher & Lia Meyer, Gender and Negotiator Competitiveness: a Meta-Analysis, 76 Organizational Behav. & Hum. Dec. Processes 1 (1998).

[iv] Kolb, supra note 1 at 515.

[v] at 523.

[vi] M. Afzalur Rahim, Managing Conflict in Organizations 137 (2001).

[vii] Walters, Stuhlmacher & Meyer, supra note 3 at 20.

[viii] at 23.

[ix] Alice Stuhlmacher & Amy Walters, Gender Differences in Negotiation Outcome: A Meta-Analysis, 52 Personnel Psych. 653 (1999).

[x] Carol Watson, Gender Versus Power as a Predictor of Negotiation Behavior and Outcomes, 10 Negot. J. 117 (1994); Deanna Womak, Cooperative Behavior by Female Negotiators: Experts or Masochists? in L. B. Nadler, M. K. Nadler & M. R. Todd-Mancillas (eds.), Advances in Gender Communications Research (1987).

[xi]  Bowles, supra note 3.

[xii]  Rebecca Wolfe & L. Kathleen McGinn, Perceived Relative Power and its Influence on Negotiations, 14 Group Dec. & Negot. 3 (2005).

[xiii]  Linda Babcock & Sara Laschever, Women Don’t Ask: Negotiation and the Gender Divide (2003).

[xiv]  Cynthia Stevens, Anna Bavetta & Marilyn Gist, Gender Differences in the Acquisition of Salary Negotiation Skills: The Role of Goals, Self-Efficacy, and Perceived Control, 78 J. of Applied Psych. 723 (1993).

[xv] Lara Kammrath & Carol Dweck, Voicing Conflict: Preferred Conflict Strategies among Incremental and Entity Theorists, 32 Personality & Social Psych. Bulletin 1497 (2006).

[xvi] Leigh Thompson, The Mind and Heart of the Negotiator (2005).

[xvii] Linda Barkacs & Stephen Standifird, Gender Distinctions and Empathy in Negotiation, 12 J. of Organizational Culture, Comm.& Conflict 83 (2008); Thompson, supra note 16.

[xviii] Amy Edmonson & Diana Smith, Too Hot to Handle: How to Manage Relationship Conflict, 49 Calif. Management Rev. 6 (2006).

[xix] Gerard Callanan & David Perri, Teaching Conflict Management Using a Scenario-Based Approach, 81 J. of Ed. for Bus. 131 (2006).

[xx] Laura Kray, Leigh Thompson & Adam Galinsky, Battle of the Sexes: Gender Stereotype Confirmation and Reactance in Negotiations, 80 J. of Personality & Soc. Psych. 942, 949 (2001).

[xxi] Laura Kray, Adam Galinsky & Leigh Thompson, Reversing the Gender Gap in Negotiations: An Exploration of Stereotype Regeneration, 87 Org. Behav. & Hum. Dec. Processes 386 (2002).

[xxii] Stevens, Bevetta & Gist, supra note 14.

[xxiii]  Bruce Patton, The Deceptive Simplicity of Teaching Negotiation: Reflections on Thirty Years of the Negotiation Workshop, 25 Negot. J. 481, 493 (2009).

[xxiv]  J.B. Bear, Passing the Buck: Incongruence between Gender Role and Topic Leads to Avoidance of Negotiation, thesis, Carnegie Mellon U., ProQuest Dissertations

and Theses (2010), available at

[xxv] Weaver, supra note 2.





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Marquette University Law School
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Federal Judicial Center
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Mediation Training & Consultation Institute
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Penn State University

Dickinson Schools of Law


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