Constraints and Triggers: Situational Mechanics of Gender in Negotiation
Hannah Riley Bowles
Carnegie Mellon University
Kathleen L. McGinn
The authors propose 2 categories of situational moderators of gender in negotiation: situational ambiguity
and gender triggers. Reducing the degree of situational ambiguity constrains the influence of gender on
negotiation. Gender triggers prompt divergent behavioral responses as a function of gender. Field and lab
studies (1 and 2) demonstrated that decreased ambiguity in the economic structure of a negotiation
(structural ambiguity) reduces gender effects on negotiation performance. Study 3 showed that repre-
sentation role (negotiating for self or other) functions as a gender trigger by producing a greater effect
on female than male negotiation performance. Study 4 showed that decreased structural ambiguity
constrains gender effects of representation role, suggesting that situational ambiguity and gender triggers
work in interaction to moderate gender effects on negotiation performance.
Keywords: gender, negotiation, situation, ambiguity, representation
The first major wave of research on gender in negotiation surged
and subsided with trends in the psychological study of individual
differences. In the 1970s and early 1980s, there was an abundance
of studies testing whether the sex of a negotiator would be a stable
and reliable predictor of bargaining behavior and performance.
Scholars who reviewed this literature reported an assortment of
null and contradictory findings (Rubin & Brown, 1975; Thomp-
son, 1990). By the early 1990s, most researchers in the field had
discarded the gender variable with a heap of other individual
differences that had failed over scores of tests to produce consis-
The contradictions from this first wave of research on gender in
negotiation became the puzzles motivating a second generation of
investigation. Consistent with contemporary theories of gender and
social behavior (Deaux & LaFrance, 1998; Deaux & Major, 1987;
Kray, Galinsky, & Thompson, 2002; Maccoby, 1990), this next
generation of researchers started with the premise that gender
effects in negotiation would arise under certain circumstances and
be absent—or even reversed—in others (Kray et al., 2002; Kray &
Thompson, in press; Kray, Thompson, & Galinsky, 2001; Pruitt,
Carnevale, Forcey, & Van Slyck, 1986; Stuhlmacher & Walters,
1999; Walters, Stuhlmacher, & Meyer, 1998). Walters et al.’s
(1998) meta-analysis, for instance, showed that sex differences
(favoring women) in cooperative behavior were much larger in
studies of explicit negotiations than in negotiation-related matrix
games (e.g., Prisoner’s Dilemma). In a second meta-analysis,
Stuhlmacher and Walters (1999) found that women (as compared
with men) reached less favorable negotiation outcomes, but factors
such as the relative power between the negotiators, the mode of
communication, and the integrative potential of the task moderated
that effect. Subsequent experimental research has demonstrated
how the activation of sex stereotypes in the negotiation context
may produce gender effects favoring male or female negotiators,
depending on the content of the stereotype and how it is introduced
(Kray et al., 2001, 2002).
The current article contributes to this second generation of
research by proposing two categories of situational moderators that
help to organize our broader understanding of when gender matters
in negotiation. The first is the degree of situational ambiguity,
which facilitates or constrains the influence of gender in negotia-
tion. The second category is what we call gender triggers, which
prompt a gender-based divergence in the behavioral response. We
show not only that situational ambiguity and gender triggers are
distinct categories of moderators of gender effects in negotiation,
but that they may work in interaction, such that decreased situa-
tional ambiguity constrains the potential for gender triggers to
influence negotiation performance.
Situational Moderators of Individual Differences
The two categories of situational moderators that we propose,
situational ambiguity and gender triggers, are motivated by psy-
chological theory on the fundamental situational moderators of
personality on behavior: Mischel’s (1977) notion of strong versus
Hannah Riley Bowles, John F. Kennedy School of Government, Har-
vard University; Linda Babcock, H. John Heinz III School of Public Policy
and Management, Carnegie Mellon University; Kathleen L. McGinn, Ne-
gotiation, Organizations, and Markets Unit, Graduate School of Business
Administration, Harvard University.
This research is based on Hannah Riley Bowles’s dissertation. It was
supported by grants from the National Science Foundation (SES-0213474);
the Center for Public Leadership at the John F. Kennedy School of
Government, Harvard University; and the Harvard Business School. We
are grateful for feedback and advice from Elaine Backman, Max Bazer-
man, Robin Ely, Michele Gelfand, Maureen Scully, Jim Sebenius, and
Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Hannah
Riley Bowles, John F. Kennedy School of Government, 79 JFK Street,
Cambridge, MA 02138. E-mail: email@example.com
Journal of Personality and Social Psychology
2005, Vol. 89, No. 6, 951–965
Copyright 2005 by the American Psychological Association
0022-3514/05/$12.00 DOI: 10.1037/0022-3522.214.171.1241
weak situations and Snyder and Ickes’s (1985) concept of precip-
Strong Versus Weak Situations
According to Mischel (1977), psychological situations (i.e.,
stimuli, treatment) are “strong” to the extent that everyone has the
same understanding of how they are supposed to respond and
everyone has the will and ability to respond as expected. Strong
situations are structured so that there is one clear and appropriate
response, and as a result, “individual differences become minimal
and situational effects prepotent” (Mischel, 1977, p. 347). Weak
situations are ambiguously structured so that people have to come
up with their own interpretations as to what is the appropriate
response, and the potential influence of individual differences,
such as gender, is heightened.
There are a number of studies that show gender effects dimin-
ishing when experimenters reduce ambiguity within the psycho-
logical situation. For instance, Wood and Karten (1986) found that
men in mixed-sex work groups were perceived to be more com-
petent and engaged in more task behavior than women. However,
when group members received test scores indicating task compe-
tence, measures of perceived competence and task behavior were
correlated with test scores and unrelated to gender. Similarly,
Dovidio, Ellyson, Keating, and Heltman (1988) found that men in
mixed-sex work pairs were more nonverbally dominant than
women, but when the experimenters manipulated the power asym-
metry within the pair, nonverbal dominance was correlated with
power and was unrelated to gender. Major and colleagues have
shown that women have lower compensation expectations than do
men (Bylsma & Major, 1992; Major & Konar, 1984; Major,
McFarlin, & Gagnon, 1984), but this gender gap in entitlement
diminishes in the presence of clear wage comparison information
(Major, McFarlin, & Gagnon, 1984) or explicit performance feed-
back (Bylsma & Major, 1992).
Snyder and Ickes (1985) proposed a second, complementary
category of situational moderator, which they called “precipitating
situations.” Whereas strong situations shift the cause of behavior
from the individual difference to the situation, precipitating situ-
ations polarize behavioral responses as a function of the individual
difference. Snyder and Ickes cited as an example of a precipitating
situation Bem and Lenney’s (1976) experiment in which they gave
sex-typed individuals the choice of being photographed engaging
in traditionally feminine or masculine behaviors (e.g., preparing a
baby bottle or oiling a squeaky hinge). This situation precipitated
sex-type-based behavior by presenting participants with a forced
choice that they would respond to differently depending on
whether they identified with being masculine or feminine.
The activation of sex stereotypes is another example of a pre-
cipitating situation. Sex stereotypes cue men and women differ-
ently with regard to their comparative skills and abilities and
contribute through a dynamic of fulfilled expectations to sex
differences in performance (Beyer, 1990; Beyer & Bowden, 1997;
Kray et al., 2002; Skrypnek & Snyder, 1982; Steele, 1997; Zanna
& Pack, 1975). Gender roles similarly provide different informa-
tion about what is the attractive or appropriate behavioral response
to a situation depending on one’s socially identified gender (Eagly,
1987; Eagly, Makhijani, & Klonsky, 1992; Rudman & Glick,
In sum, Mischel (1977) and Snyder and Ickes (1985) presented
two categories of situational characteristics that moderate the ef-
fects of individual differences on social behavior. One constrains
the potential for individual differences to influence behavior, and
the other triggers divergent behaviors as a function of the individ-
Situational Ambiguity and Gender Triggers
We adapt these concepts of strong versus weak (Mischel, 1977)
and precipitating situations (Snyder & Ickes, 1985) to the study of
gender in negotiation in terms of situational ambiguity and gender
We propose that the degree of ambiguity within a negotiation
situation moderates the influence of individual differences, such as
gender, on negotiation performance. We predict that the more
ambiguity there is in the negotiation situation, the more potential
there is for the individual difference to affect performance. There
are multiple dimensions along which a negotiation situation could
vary in ambiguity. For instance, the more ambiguity there is about
how parties are supposed to interact with one another, the more
potential there is for individual differences to influence negotiation
behavior. Van Lange and Visser (1999) restructured a traditional
implicit negotiation exercise (social dilemma) so that parties had
the potential to change features of the negotiation context that
would normally be fixed (viz., how interdependent their outcomes
were). By introducing more potential for variation in how parties
enacted the negotiation, the researchers were able to show that
individual differences in social value orientation influence how
interdependent parties make themselves, depending on the coop-
erativeness of their counterparts’ play.
We propose that structural ambiguity is an important moderator
of gender effects in negotiation. Structural ambiguity refers to the
degree of uncertainty in parties’ understanding of the economic
structure of the negotiation. The economic structure is a centrally
defining element of a negotiation situation and an important guide
for negotiators’ behavior (Lax & Sebenius, 1986; Neale & Bazer-
man, 1991; Raiffa, 1982; Thompson, 2005; Walton & McKersie,
1965). It consists of the pool of resources available for distribution
between the parties and the likely coordination points for agree-
ment (Raiffa, 1982). Coordination points, such as “focal points”
(e.g., a 50–50 split) and other standards for agreement (e.g.,
market values or social norms of fairness), help parties to agree on
a specific settlement out of the potentially infinite set of possible
outcomes (Schelling, 1980; White & Neale, 1994).
The less parties understand about the limits of the bargaining
range and appropriate standards for agreement, the more ambiguity
there is in the negotiation situation. For instance, lack of informa-
tion about one’s own or the other party’s negotiating limits creates
uncertainty about what is attainable in the negotiation. Lack of
BOWLES, BABCOCK, AND MCGINN
clear standards for agreement (e.g., benchmarks or focal points), or
the presence of multiple possible standards, creates uncertainty
about the range of likely agreement. Increased structural ambiguity
“weakens” the situation, in Mischel’s (1977) terms, because it
leaves parties with little guidance as to what is up for negotiation
and how to judge what is a good or appropriate outcome. The
weaker the situational stimulus, the more potential there is for
individual differences, such as gender, to influence negotiators’
performance. Decreased structural ambiguity, on the other hand,
sharpens the situational stimulus, making the situational cues more
dominant and reducing the potential influence of individual
We use the term gender triggers to encapsulate those situational
factors that, in Snyder and Ickes’s (1985) terms, “precipitate”
gender effects by prompting gender-related behavioral responses.
There are many potential forms of gender triggers in negotiation.
For instance, a recent meta-analysis by Stuhlmacher and Walters
(1999) showed that the male advantage in negotiation is somewhat
higher in single-issue negotiations, in which one party’s gain is the
other’s loss, than it is in multi-issue negotiations with potential for
mutual gain. This finding is consistent with gender role-based
expectations that men would be more likely than women to engage
in the types of highly competitive behaviors important to achieving
good outcomes in single-issue negotiations (e.g., making aggres-
sive first offers, refusing to yield) (Bakan, 1966; Eagly, 1987).
Another form of gender trigger that has been tested directly in
negotiation contexts is the activation of sex stereotypes (Kray et
al., 2001, 2002). Kray and colleagues demonstrated that they could
activate a form of stereotype threat (Steele, 1997) favoring men, by
telling master of business administration (MBA) students engaged
in a competitive negotiation task that their performance would be
highly diagnostic of their actual negotiation ability. Kray and
colleagues then showed how explicitly activated stereotypes could
elicit a form of stereotype reactance (Brehm, 1966) and produce
counterstereotypic negotiation results favoring women (Kray et al.,
2001). Kray and colleagues later manipulated the content of sex
stereotypes with regard to negotiation performance and showed
that participants’ goal setting and performance fulfilled the gen-
dered expectations that the experimenters had created (Kray et al.,
We propose that representation role (i.e., negotiating for oneself
or someone else) is another potential gender trigger in negotiation.
Although there has been a fair amount of research and discussion
in the negotiation field on the (dis)advantages of using a negoti-
ating agent (Bazerman, Neale, Valley, & Zajac, 1992; Croson &
Mnookin, 1997; Mnookin & Susskind, 1999; Parks & Conlon,
1995; Rubin & Sander, 1988; Valley, White, Neale, & Bazerman,
1992) and on the effects of constituent surveillance and account-
ability on negotiation behavior (Benton, 1972, 1975; Ben-Yoav &
Pruitt, 1984; Carnevale, Pruitt, & Britton, 1979; Druckman, Solo-
mon, & Zechmeister, 1972; Frey & Adams, 1972; Haccoun &
Klimoski, 1975; Pruitt et al., 1986; Wall, 1975; Wall & Adams,
1974), we have uncovered no studies that test the effect of a simple
role shift between negotiating for oneself versus for someone else
on gender differences in negotiation performance (cf. Druckman et
al.  on competing teams vs. individuals).
There are at least three streams of psychological theory and
research that suggest that representation role could moderate the
effect of gender on negotiation performance. One is the literature
on entitlement, which shows that women (as compared with men)
experience a relative lack of perceived deservedness for them-
selves that does not extend to similar others (Callahan-Levy &
Messe, 1979; Major, McFarlin, & Gagnon, 1984). If women ex-
perience depressed deservedness with regard to themselves as
compared with others, then shifting from promoting their own
self-interest to advocating for others may lead them to have higher
negotiation expectations (Major, Vanderslice, & McFarlin, 1984).
Another explanation for why women may be more effective
when negotiating on behalf of others than for themselves is that
women (as compared with men) are more constrained by gender
roles and stereotypes from advocating freely and effectively for
themselves (Wade, 2001). Rudman and colleagues have demon-
strated that women (as compared with men) who self-promote run
a greater risk of social backlash (Rudman, 1998; Rudman & Glick,
1999). Female negotiators may encounter more resistance from
their counterparts when negotiating for themselves as opposed to
The literature on gender and self-construal suggests an alterna-
tive interpretation for why a shift in representation role would
influence female negotiation behavior. Cross and Madson (1997)
theorize that women tend to develop more interpersonally inter-
dependent self-construals than do men. For individuals with inter-
dependent self-construals, obligations to others and responsiveness
to the needs of others motivate social behavior and shape social
interactions. The core of implication of Cross and Madson’s theory
for gender and negotiation is that women may be especially
motivated in negotiations in which they are responsible for repre-
senting the interests of another person as compared with situations
in which they are representing only their own self-interest.
Motivated by theory on the situational factors that moderate the
effects of individual differences on social behavior (Mischel, 1977;
Snyder & Ickes, 1985), we propose two categories of situational
moderators of gender effects in negotiation: situational ambiguity
and gender triggers. We propose that decreasing the degree of
situational ambiguity strengthens the negotiation situation in Mis-
chel’s sense of the term and thereby constrains the potential for
gender to influence negotiation performance. Consistent with Sny-
der and Ickes’s theory of precipitating situations, we propose that
gender triggers cue the enactment of gender-relevant scripts and
produce a gender-based divergence in response to the negotiation
We propose not only that situational ambiguity and gender
triggers are distinct forms of situational moderators of gender
effects, but that they may work in interaction to moderate the
influence of gender on negotiation performance. We theorize that
strong situational cues compete with gender triggers for influence
on negotiation performance. Reduced situational ambiguity con-
strains the influence of gender triggers by guiding behavior to
follow nongender-specific scripts; increased situational ambiguity
GENDER IN NEGOTIATION
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BOWLES, BABCOCK, AND MCGINN
1. What is your target price in this negotiation? In other words,
what price per unit would you consider to be a good outcome for
you in this negotiation?
2. Regardless of whether you want to make the first offer, if you
had to put the first serious price number on the table, what
amount would you offer?
1. Did you reach agreement? (Check one: Yes/No) If yes, at what
price per unit?
2.For how many minutes did you negotiate?
1.What would be the total annual compensation in the best agree-
ment that you hope to negotiate?
1. Did you and your negotiating counterpart reach agreement?
(Check one: Yes/No)
2. If you reached agreement, please describe below the total annual
compensation package that [the candidate] will receive.
3. Did you negotiate with [the candidate] or [the mentor]? (Check
one: I negotiated with [name of candidate]./I negotiated with
[name of mentor].)
Prenegotiation Survey Questions
1. What is the lowest wage per hour that you can accept?
2.If you fail to reach agreement, how much will you be paid in
addition to the show-up and early show-up fee (if applicable) for
participating in today’s exercise?
3. If you fail to reach agreement, how much will the student you
represent in the negotiation be paid in addition to the show-up
and early show-up fee (if applicable) for participating in today’s
4. If you reach agreement on a wage, how much will you be paid in
addition to the show-up and early show-up fee (if applicable) for
every dollar that you gain on the hourly wage above $30 per
5. If you reach agreement on a wage, how much will the student
you represent be paid in addition to the show-up and early
show-up fee (if applicable) for every dollar that you gain on the
hourly wage above $30 per hour?*
*Questions distributed to sellers in other-representation condition only.
Postnegotiation Survey Questions
1. Did you reach agreement? (Check one: Yes/No) If yes, at what
wage per hour?
2.For how many minutes did you negotiate?
Received November 12, 2004
Revision received March 21, 2005
Accepted March 30, 2005 ?
GENDER IN NEGOTIATION