Negotiation Research You Can Use: When Women Negotiate More Ethically Than Men

Gender differences in moral identity may affect how we bargain.

By on / Dealmaking

Men and women approach negotiation differently, on average, research suggests. Women initiate negotiations on their own behalf less frequently than men, for example, though they are just as likely as men to advocate for others. In addition, women—and not men—tend to face a backlash for bargaining on their own behalf, an outcome that may explain their reticence about negotiating, Linda Babcock (Carnegie Mellon University), Hannah Riley Bowles (Harvard Kennedy School), and Lei Lai (Tulane University) have found in their research.

Are there gender differences in how ethically negotiators behave at the bargaining table? Women are generally less accepting of unethical behavior than men are and tend to behave more ethically than men in a wide variety of contexts, past studies have found. In the context of negotiation, women have been found to be less tolerant overall of a wide array of unethical strategies as compared with men. In a study by Michael P. Haselhuhn and Elaine M. Wong of the University of California, Riverside, 25% of men used deception to negotiate a deal as compared with only 11% of women.

In a new study published in Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, Jessica A. Kennedy (Vanderbilt University), Laura J. Kray (University of California, Berkeley), and Gillian Ku (London Business School) looked more closely at possible gender differences in negotiator ethics and found nuanced results.

Relationship goals

The researchers hypothesized that women internalize morality into their identities more strongly than men do. As compared with men, women are more likely to view themselves as interdependent with others and to be more attuned to relationships and others’ emotions. Generally speaking, men tend to define themselves as more independent and less reliant
on others.

“Because being moral helps people build and maintain relationships,” Kennedy and her colleagues write, “women are likely to adopt goals and values that promote the welfare of others. Over time, these goals and values may translate into identifying strongly as a moral person.” Because people with stronger moral identities tend to behave more ethically, the researchers hypothesized that women also would be more ethical negotiators.

The researchers found support for their theorizing in several experiments—at least under certain conditions. In one experiment, the researchers measured participants’ sense of moral identity, in part by asking how important it was for them to have certain characteristics associated with morality, such as being caring, fair, generous, helpful, and so on. Next, participants read a negotiation scenario involving the sale of a used car that had one minor and one major mechanical problem. The researchers then measured participants’ degree of moral disengagement—the extent to which they rationalized away unethical decisions—and assessed how committed participants were to negotiating ethically with a potential buyer of the used car.

Female participants internalized moral traits more strongly than male participants and were less likely than men to morally disengage from unethical negotiating practices, the results showed. In addition, the women were significantly less supportive than the men of unethical negotiating tactics.

When money trumps ethical concerns

It’s not the case that women behave in a morally superior manner across the board in negotiation, however. In a follow-up experiment, participants played the role of a hiring manager negotiating the salary of a job candidate. The participants were told that the job would be eliminated in six months due to a restructuring, a fact that the candidate did not know.

Would women be more likely than men to reveal this fact to the candidate? When participants did not have explicit financial incentives to reveal the information, women were more forthright than men about the short-term nature of the job in the simulation that followed. However, when participants were told they would receive $100 for negotiating the lowest salary, women were just as likely as men to behave unethically, despite their stronger sense of moral identity.

Overall, the findings suggest that women may be socialized to be more ethical negotiators than men. When financial incentives to lie or cheat loom large, however, women may be tempted to focus more on maximizing profit than on adhering to their moral standards. To encourage negotiators of both genders to behave more morally, look for ways to make ethical concerns salient in negotiation and reduce financial incentives to behave unethically.

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