The Gender Gap in Negotiation – Why It Happens and What to Do About It

minority female ceo leading meeting
Topic(s): fairness, gender
Publication: Journal of Applied Psychology (2021)
Article: The Dynamics of Gender and Alternatives in Negotiation
Authors: J.E. Dannals, J.J. Zlatev, N. Halevy, M.A. Neale
Reviewed by: Josie Anker

Negotiation in employment can influence a person’s salary, chance of promotion, and overall well-being. Therefore, it is concerning that previous research has found a gender gap in negotiation outcomes – women fare worse than men.

However, previous research has not found why this gender difference exists. Two different reasons have been suggested. The first is the “tameness” reason, which suggests that women do not behave assertively enough to be successful in negotiations; this is consistent with traditional gender stereotypes. The second is the “backlash” reason, which suggests that women do behave assertively in negotiations, but suffer backlash from their negotiation partner as a result.


New research (Dannals et al., 2021) attempts to uncover whether the gender gap in negotiation performance is a result of either the “tameness” or “backlash” reasons. Researchers also considered how having alternative options or backup plans can impact negotiations. The researchers conducted two studies to address these issues. 

In the first study, participants in a salary negotiation simulation were randomly assigned to have either a strong or weak alternative option. The researchers collected data on the outcomes of the negotiation, as well as participants “aspiration price” (the goal the negotiator hopes to achieve, set prior to the negotiation) and “reservation price” (the negotiator’s minimally acceptable deal, set prior to the negotiation).  

The second study considered where employees begin their salary negotiations. Researchers asked participants to imagine they were in the process of negotiating a job offer with a company. Again, participants were randomly assigned to either possess a strong or weak alternative option. Participants gave their aspiration price and their planned first offer to the potential employer.


Unexpectedly, the results of the studies did not reveal that women performed worse in negotiation than men overall. Rather, men and women performed similarly when they had a weak alternative option. Additionally, both men and women performed better when they had a strong alternative option rather than a weak alternative option. However, the gender gap emerged when negotiators had a strong alternative option – men benefitted significantly more from this situation. 

The researchers also examined the rates of impasses, which occurred when negotiation partners failed to reach an agreement. They found that when one or both negotiation partners were female with a strong alternative option, negotiations were more likely to end in an impasse.

Additionally, the researchers found that men and women with strong alternative options set similar aspiration values, planned first offers, and reservation values. This suggests that differences in ambition or willingness to compromise heading into a negotiation do not explain the different negotiation outcomes by gender. 


Taken together, the results of this study are more consistent with the “backlash” reason for women faring worse in negotiations compared to men, rather than the “tameness” reason. Specifically, when negotiators use their strong alternative option to behave more assertively, women fare worse than men. Further, women with strong alternatives were more likely to end the negotiation in an impasse compared to men with strong alternatives. 

These findings suggest that negotiation partners respond more negatively to women’s assertive behavior compared to men’s assertive behavior. Ultimately, as women climb to higher positions in organizations, they also become more likely to face backlash.

The researchers suggest several practical applications of these findings for organizations. First, they suggest that in order to combat gender differences, managers should attempt to introduce guidelines and processes that minimize backlash from negotiation partners, rather than merely encouraging women to behave more assertively. Additionally, the researchers suggest that organizations consider contexts in which these backlash effects may be most likely to occur. They may then design policies or implement procedures such as limiting negotiation opportunities (like salary), in order to help close the gender gap in negotiation outcomes.


Dannals, J. E., Zlatev, J. J., Halevy, N., & Neale, M. A. (2021). The dynamics of gender and alternatives in negotiation. Journal of Applied Psychology. Advance online publication.