Context matters: Why women are not worse negotiators than men

We would like to thank Sarah Buhl and Dr. Jens Mazei for reviewing the article.

Mastering the art of negotiation is key to being successful in everyday life and in a highly competitive and dynamic professional world. One widespread belief among laypeople is that women are inferior negotiators compared to men. Such gender stereotypes can hold women back from achieving their goals, and ultimately lead to lower income levels and poorer career prospects. But is this stereotype true? Psychological research shows that the influence of gender on negotiation outcomes depends on societal role expectations and negotiation context. Multiple strategies can help to overcome the negative effects of gender stereotyping in negotiations.

Fig 1.: Alma and Pete want to make the next step in their careers.

The impact of gender stereotypes on negotiation outcomes

Imagine the following situation: Alma is a respected software engineer at a well-known IT company. She’s currently applying for a senior lead position in her team, which would come with a salary raise. Her colleague Pete is also seeking a promotion to a leadership role within a different team. Alma and Pete have the same qualifications and comparable professional work experience. In the early stages of their promotion negotiation, the manager treats both candidates equally. When the manager offers Alma a salary that is lower than the industry average, she eventually accepts. Pete on the other hand receives an above average offer. Pete manages to negotiate even further, earning him an additional 5% pay raise. This results in a total annual salary advantage of around 15% over Alma.

While this is a fictional example, it is a common experience for many women in corporate settings: Women are generally paid less than man (‘gender pay gap’). In fact, a German court recently ruled in favor of a female employee in a similar case. Her company was ordered to pay salary compensations and damage payments. This highlights the gender-related challenges that continue to exist despite progress towards gender equality [1]. Unequal payment is a major societal problem, and gender stereotypes are one of the main drivers. Gender stereotypes have a negative impact on career development and income levels of women. This adds up to substantial gender inequalities over the course of a lifetime [2]. For example, women often set lower goals and agree to lower (salary) outcomes in negotiations compared to their male counterparts. This perpetuates the gender pay gap [3]. To increase fairness and equality, it is important to understand how gender stereotypes influence behavior and negotiation outcomes. In this article, we correct the misconception that women are inferior negotiators compared to men. First, we explain how gender stereotypes can cause women to behave and be treated differently than men. Second, we show that these behaviors and treatments can vary widely depending on cultural and situational contexts, and that men and women are actually equally good at negotiating. Finally, we discuss some promising approaches to potentially overcome negative stereotypes and their effects in negotiation.

The social role theory of sex differences

To discuss the impact of gender stereotypes in negotiations, it is first necessary to understand why men and women seem to behave differently in certain circumstances. For this question, theories from social psychology offer some interesting insights. Social role theory [4] and biosocial role theory [5] suggest that gender differences in behavior can be explained by societal expectations and roles assigned to men and women. Society expects men and woman to act in certain ways, which in turn actually results in them acting accordingly. These expectations stem from earlier division of labor and biological differences (see Figure 1.1; for example, certain activities might have evolutionarily been accomplished more efficiently by one sex over the other [6]). Over time, these observations on labor division evolved into social roles (2; for example, men being ‘breadwinners’ and taking jobs while women being family ‘caretakers’). These social roles then eventually turned into gender stereotypic expectations (3; for example, men being seen as powerful and women being expected to be nurturing [7]). Social role theory further suggests that people follow these role expectations because they get rewarded for acting according to them and get criticized if they do not. Put differently, people try to engage in role-conforming behavior (4; for example, men trying to behave more dominantly than women). This process illustrates how stereotypes can emerge historically and ultimately lead to different role-conforming behaviors in men and womenFig. 2: Process from biological division of labor to role-conforming behavior. Adapted from [8]

Gender stereotypes in negotiations

With this set of theories in mind, we can now understand why gender stereotypes influence negotiations. What specific gender stereotypes are apparent in negotiations? The male gender role is seen as consistent with the social role of an effective negotiator [7]. Men are traditionally considered to be rational, assertive, and highly protective of their own interests. Women, on the other hand, are viewed as more passive, emotional, and accommodating of other’s needs [9]. This is viewed as inconsistent with the attributes of an effective negotiator [7]. As a result, in negotiations, women are often perceived as less likely to initiate a negotiation, having a lower expectancy of negotiation success, and being worse at claiming value than men [10], [11]. As described above by social role theory, these stereotypes lead women to display role-conforming behavior: They tend to act more passively and less dominantly in negotiations to comply with their social role. Dominant  behavior is however often linked to higher negotiation success. If women show less dominant behavior to comply with gender roles, societal role expectations and stereotypes indirectly reduce their negotiation success. Moreover, when women choose to behave in a dominant manner, they may face social backlash and negative interpersonal perceptions from their counterparts (for example, being perceived as ‘difficult’). Due to such backlash, women might gradually learn to refrain from dominant behavior in negotiations. The challenge with stereotypic expectations also becomes apparent in the other direction. Women who behave according to their gender role in a passive and caring way generally achieve worse negotiation results since these practices are less effective [12]. Therefore, they may miss out on bigger profits or higher salaries, all due to social expectations and gender role compliance. Notably, recent research has become increasingly more fine-grained, applying diverse perspectives on gender effects in negotiations. Societal role expectations can, for example, differ depending on women’s sexual orientation or ethnicity, which in turn affects how they are perceived and treated at the bargaining table [13], [14]. For example, black women are perceived as more dominant than white women, which leads to them receiving more favorable negotiation offers. This again illustrates how stereotypes influence negotiation outcomes. To sum up, both the expectation of a potential backlash (when showing role inconsistent behavior) and the use of ineffective tactics (when showing role consistent behavior) lead to lower negotiation outcomes for women. Additionally, men and women who behave similarly might still be treated differently depending on the stereotypes held by the counterpart (for example, men tend to receive better offers than women [1]). This differential treatment can further amplify gender differences in negotiation outcomes (for example, men securing better deals). Taken together, research largely shows that there aren't big differences between genders in their negotiation capacity (see also gender similarity hypothesis [15]). Instead, it's social roles and societal expectations that push women towards ineffective negotiation behaviors.

Why context matters

Besides these societal influences and gender stereotypes, other lines of research highlight that it is actually not the person’s gender that matters, but rather the gendered context in which a negotiation takes place. Scholars from these research lines argue that gender effects in negotiations exist, but that these dynamics vary substantially across situations. In other words, the effects of gender might be totally different when comparing two negotiation contexts, sometimes leading to better outcomes for women. More specifically, two major contextual influencing factors define the gender effects in negotiations: (a) the prominence or relevance of gender in the specific situation and (b) the uncertainty of the negotiation context [16] (see Figure 2). Prominence refers to the degree to which gender identity is obvious in a situation. Similarly, relevance refers to the extent to which gender plays a crucial factor in a specific situation. Both prominence and relevance can be shaped by the social context in which the negotiation takes place.

Highlighting the importance of contextual influence, the negotiation performance of men and women is reversed in cultures that are less individualistic or assertive (for example, China or Korea) [17]. In these cultures, men are more likely to be stereotyped as communal, while women are stereotyped as agentic [18]. In line with these gender roles, women show more agentic behavior in negotiations and outperform men [17]. This pattern is directly opposite to what we described above and highlights how the context and gender stereotypes jointly contribute to gender effects in negotiations.

Also, the subject of a negotiation could impact the prominence and relevance: A negotiation in the automotive industry may be considered more masculine-stereotypic and traditionally associated with male stereotypes, leading to better performance by men. The second factor is uncertainty. It refers to the lack of clarity about aspects such as the negotiable items, adequate negotiation strategies, the appropriateness of negotiation, and the identities of the parties involved. Gender effects are more likely to emerge in situations with high uncertainty. For instance, consider the following work scenario: Two colleagues are tasked with a new project and engage in negotiations to allocate the tasks. However, the project’s objectives, deadlines, and responsibilities are poorly defined. Furthermore, there is a lack of established norms and guidelines in the situation, which further increases the negotiation complexity. In this scenario, as uncertainty arises, the likelihood of gender effects increases (for example, women are less inclined than men to negotiate in uncertain situations [19]). This again highlights the critical role of the negotiation context in shaping gender dynamics.

To sum up this line of research: Gender effects in negotiations are largely context dependent. Women tend to outperform men in societies in which female social roles and stereotypes are more closely aligned with beneficial negotiation behaviors, or in contexts that are traditionally viewed as female. Gender differences in negotiations are therefore largely shaped by external factors. Thus, the general stereotype that women are worse negotiators than men can be rejected. A person’s gender is not a reliable factor for determining a person’s negotiation outcome [3].

Fig. 3: Framework of when gender matters in negotiations. Adapted from [16]

Tackling the obstacles of gender stereotypes

We now know that gender effects in negotiations are a product of social expectations and cultural values. But what can we do to alleviate gender effects that might still arise? Fortunately, research suggests a range of potential strategies that are promising to reduce gender differences. For example, decreasing prominence and relevance of gender, as well as lowering the level of uncertainty in negotiation settings [16]. In this last part, we outline some potentially effective strategies to tackle the obstacles that women face in negotiations. While these strategies are not universal, they provide important insights and have shown encouraging effects in research.

1.     Stereotype regeneration

The first potential strategy is stereotype regeneration: the process of modifying or redefining behaviors and traits associated with a group. This process involves transforming one’s own stereotypical expectations and role-conforming behaviors (that are traditionally viewed as liabilities) into assets. Linking stereotypically feminine traits with negotiation success has been shown to improve negotiation outcomes for women. For instance, the stereotype of women being empathetic [11] could be previously highlighted as a skill that a good negotiator should possess. This can mean that reminding oneself (and potentially also the counterpart) of how stereotypically feminine traits are also important in negotiations (for example, finding a solution that satisfies both parties; caring for a fair solution) can lead to better negotiation outcomes. On top of that, women were perceived as more competent by men when negotiations were linked to feminine traits. Lastly, stereotype regeneration is not something that women should have to do individually. Rather, it is up to everyone engaged in negotiations to question their existing stereotypes and societal role expectations to aid with this process.

2.     Negotiating on behalf of others

As of now, stereotypes however persist—and their negative impact cannot be entirely mitigated through the aforementioned regeneration. Negotiating on behalf of someone else can be another strategy to facilitate better outcomes. As previously stated, women that negotiate for themselves fear that dominant behavior will be perceived as inconsistent with social expectations. They worry that this results in negative judgements and a subsequent backlash. In comparison, when negotiating on behalf of others, this fear can be reduced since advocating for others is more aligned with female role expectations. Women were able to secure notably better negotiation outcomes when negotiating on behalf of others. In some situations, they outperformed their male counterparts [10]. Imagine a situation at work where two female colleagues share similar concerns about their salary. They aim to negotiate for a salary raise but fear potential backlash if they are assertive in their respective negotiations. One idea could then be that colleague A negotiates on behalf of colleague B, and vice versa. This could effectively reduce their fear of potential backlash and secure better negotiation outcomes.

3.     Building negotiation experience

Lastly, reducing uncertainty in negotiation settings will limit the extent of gender influencing negotiations. Building up experience is one way to decrease negotiation uncertainty. As little as one single negotiation experience can increase negotiation performance in individuals [20]. Experience in negotiations should also enable people to develop beneficial ways of behavior, which should in turn further reduce uncertainty [3]. For example, an individual that has a lot of experience in job interviews is already familiar with the process for determining salary, benefits, and other terms up for negotiation. Therefore, they might be able to make informed decisions and apply effective strategies by drawing on experience from their previous encounters. Especially for women, this means that negotiating regularly helps to gain experience and reduce uncertainty. This will ultimately lead to better negotiation outcomes. On an organizational level, reducing uncertainty by clearly specifying what exactly is to be negotiated (for example: salary, vacation days, bonus) would reduce the probability of gender differences.


Women in negotiations see themselves confronted with different hurdles, from gender stereotypes to contextual and societal factors. At the same time, gender differences in negotiations are dynamic and dependent on situational factors and can be mitigated or even reversed. Previous research shows promising ways to reduce gender differences in negotiations—from training, over stereotype regeneration to specific tactics like negotiating on behalf of others. These approaches can help women to overcome the societal hurdles of gender stereotyping when preparing for their next negotiation—and prove that once we overcome societal stereotypes and role expectations, women and men are equally capable to negotiate effectively.


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Picture 1: dotshock via Freepik (

Picture 2: drawn by Burmester et al. for the article

Picture 3: adapted from [16]

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