Are Women More Ethical at the Negotiating Table? It’s Complicated.
Skip to content
Organizations Careers Dec 6, 2018

Are Women More Ethical at the Negotiating Table? It’s Complicated.

Plus, how women are judged differently when they break the rules.

A woman shakes a man's hand.

David Doran

Based on the research of

Jason R. Pierce

Leigh Thompson

Maryam Kouchaki

Laura J. Kray

Jessica Kennedy

Mary-Hunter "Mae" McDonnell

Nicole Stephens

During negotiations, studies have found that men are considerably more likely to lie than women—and men are more tolerant of lying as a strategy. But why?

EDITOR’S NOTE: Several female faculty presented new research about challenges facing women in business as part of the 2018 Global Women’s Summit. These are some highlights from a faculty panel on ethics in the workplace.

It’s a bit of a puzzle, according to Leigh Thompson. Generally speaking, men and women tend to approach ethical decision-making fairly similarly. So it seems to be something about negotiations in particular that causes large gender differences to emerge.

New research by Thompson, a professor of management and organizations at Kellogg, offers an intriguing explanation: men and women enter into negotiations with different default assumptions about what’s at stake. Namely, men tend to view negotiations as competitions with winners and losers, while women tend to view them as relationships, with opportunities for everyone to win.

“Men and women walk around with different lenses on,” Thompson says.

When people are encouraged to view a negotiation with a different lens, she finds, the gender differences shrink.

In three studies, Thompson and her colleague Jason R. Pierce of UNC Greensboro asked participants to play a computerized game with a “partner” on a computer in a different room. Participants were handed an envelope of cash and given the opportunity to split the money with their partner. The partner could then choose to accept the split or not. But there was a twist: participants were allowed to lie about how much money was in the envelope—saying there was only a dollar, for instance, instead of a twenty— in order to trick their partners into accepting a less favorable split.

Consistent with previous research on negotiations, 44% of male participants chose to lie to their partners, while just 29% of women did.

Critically, however, when the exercise was presented in a different frame, the results changed drastically. In a second study, the game was explicitly framed as a competition. This is a bargaining game, participants were told, so it was them versus their opponent. “We made it sound like this was going to be a real fight to the finish,” says Thompson.

In this context, the gender difference decreased, with both men and women frequently choosing to lie.

“When the women were put in this competitive, winner–loser, opponent frame, 64% of them said, ‘Ok, I’m going to lie too,’” says Thompson. “So it isn’t the fact that we don’t have this in us. It’s just that somehow that was not our mindset going in.”

Which begs the question: If encouraging women to adopt a competitive mindset can make them lie more, will encouraging men to adopt an empathetic mindset lead them to lie less?

A third study tested this hypothesis. Some participants were told that their partner was a retiree in financial straits who wanted nothing more than to purchase treats for her grandchildren with any money she makes during the experiment. Under this condition, few participants—of either gender—opted to lie to their partner.

“We were able to induce more truth-telling in men,” says Thompson.

“When the women were put in this competitive, winner–loser, opponent frame, 64% of them said, ‘Ok, I’m going to lie too.’”

— Leigh Thompson

Add Insight
to your inbox.

We’ll send you one email a week with content you actually want to read, curated by the Insight team.

Negotiating for Others

Women are often given a simple piece of advice before stepping into a negotiation: frame your argument as though you are advocating for someone else, be it your team, your organization, or even the success of your project.

The idea, says Maryam Kouchaki, an assistant professor of management and organizations at Kellogg, is that advocating for others releases women from social constraints that would otherwise limit how tough or forceful they are allowed to be.

“Research has shown that when women are in advocacy roles—for example, using a framework of ‘we’ or ‘I’m negotiating for us’—then women don’t experience a backlash when they negotiate assertively,” says Kouchaki.

New research by Kouchaki suggests a potential wrinkle.

Advocacy roles can put a new kind of social pressure on women. Namely, women may feel less pressured to be polite, but more pressured to do “whatever it takes” to strike a hard bargain—even if “whatever it takes” involves unethical behavior.

In four studies, Kouchaki and her colleague Laura Kray of UC Berkeley confirm that when negotiating for themselves, women are less likely than men to use deception—such as failing to reveal the defects on a car they are selling. When representing someone else, however, the gender gap disappears.

Moreover, says Kouchaki, when explicitly asked, “only women feel pressure when they are representing others.”

But here’s where things get really interesting. When women negotiate on behalf of men, they lie more than when they represent women. Why? Kouchaki theorizes that women assume that men—more so than women—will want them to lie.

“Your constituents’ preferences determine what you will do during a negotiation when you are negotiating on behalf of others, rather than you relying on your own ethical preference,” says Kouchaki.

Held to a Higher Standard

Would Martha Stewart have received as much jail time for insider trading if she had been a man? Would her reputation, and that of her company, have taken the same hit?

Of course, as with most hypotheticals, it’s impossible to say for certain.

But it is true that women face a higher ethical bar than men do, says recent research conducted by Nicole Stephens, an associate professor of management and organizations at Kellogg. In a new study, Stephens, along with her coauthors Jessica Kennedy of Vanderbilt and Mae McDonnell of the University of Pennsylvania, examined a database of nearly 500 cases in which attorneys were judged to be guilty of breaching the American Bar Association’s Rules for Professional Conduct.

“The judges who made the decision about punishment were highly trained,” says Stephens, “and there was a very systematic process by which they decided the punishment that an individual should face.”

Nonetheless, female attorneys were assigned more severe punishments than male attorneys for equal offenses, Stephens found. In fact, female attorneys were more than twice as likely to be disbarred for the same offense.

The disparity was greatest when there were very few female judges on the ABA’s decision-making panel, and it disappeared as female representation increased.

“These findings suggest the importance of ensuring that women are represented in these important roles of influence,” says Stephens.

A second study, in the laboratory, confirmed the overall findings. Participants read a hypothetical story about either a man or woman who committed an ethical violation. The participants indicated that they wanted to punish female perpetrators more severely than male ones. They also indicated that they desired women to behave more ethically than men.

“As an individual, if you’re a woman entering an organization and you look to act like one of the guys,” says Stephens, “that might not be a good idea. There might be different standards applied to men versus women.”

Featured Faculty

J. Jay Gerber Professor of Dispute Resolution & Organizations, Professor of Management & Organizations

Associate Professor of Management & Organizations

Associate Professor of Management & Organizations, Associate Professor of Psychology (Weinberg College, courtesy)

About the Writer

Jessica Love is editor in chief of Kellogg Insight.

About the Research

Pierce, Jason R. and Leigh Thompson. Forthcoming. "Explaining Differences in Men and Women's Use of Unethical Tactics in Negotiations." Negotiation and Conflict Management Research. https://doi.org/10.1111/ncmr.12135

Kouchaki, Maryam, and Laura J. Kray. 2018. “’I Won’t Let You Down:’ Personal Ethical Lapses Arising from Women’s Advocating for Others.” Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes. 147: 147-157.

Kennedy, Jessica, Mary-Hunter McDonnell and Nicole Stephens. "Does Gender Raise the Ethical Bar? Exploring the Punishment of Ethical Violations at Work." Working paper.

Suggested For You
Most Popular

Every interaction with the top boss is an audition for senior leadership.

Plus, ideas for designing spaces that encourage employees to team up in unique ways.

Yes, you read that right: Sometimes being mad helps you focus on what you want.

Most Popular Podcasts

Coworkers can make us crazy. Here’s how to handle tough situations.

Plus: Four questions to consider before becoming a social-impact entrepreneur.

Finding and nurturing high performers isn’t easy, but it pays off.

A Broadway songwriter and a marketing professor discuss the connection between our favorite tunes and how they make us feel.

More in Organizations