Negotiating Femininity: Gender-Relevant Primes Improve Women’s Economic Performance in Gender Role Incongruent Negotiations

Simple strategies that prime women to focus on past negotiation successes or prepare by imagining helping a friend negotiate can help women succeed in negotiations.


Gender differences in negotiation can result in women having lower wages and stifled career growth. According to the “gender role congruity” framework, negotiators are influenced by gender roles – specifically, their own gender role’s alignment with negotiation situation at hand. Research has shown that women perform best when a negotiating situation is consistent with their communal gender role, for example when negotiating on feminine topics or on behalf of another person. However, upon entering an actual negotiation, women are largely not at liberty to change their negotiating circumstances. What women can change is their internal approach to negotiating in a context that favors men.

The authors tested two short interventions psychologically priming women to perform better in financial negotiations that stereotypically favor men. They predicted that these primes would improve women’s performance in negotiations, mediated by women’s increased perception of fitting in:

In the first intervention, each participant was asked to recall three events in their life when they were assertive before beginning a negotiation. This “masculine-supplement prime” enhanced participants’ assertive self-advocacy, a quality associated with the masculine gender role, adjusting participants’ perception of themselves to fit a stereotypically masculine negotiation.

In the second intervention, each participant was asked to imagine they were negotiating on behalf of a close friend. This “feminine-complement prime” encouraged participants to mentally reframe the negotiating situation to make it more complementary with women’s communal gender role.


Both priming interventions improved women’s negotiating performance in terms of surplus attained. Surplus was calculated as the amount below the buyer’s highest acceptable price or above the seller’s lowest acceptable price.  

  • In the gender incongruent negotiations over the price of motorcycle headlights, women achieved 42% more surplus following the masculine-supplement prime, compared to the control condition($4.06 more surplus than women in the control condition).
  • In negotiations over the price of motorcycle headlights, women achieved 53% more surplus following the feminine-complement prime, compared to the control condition($4.24 more surplus than women in the control condition).
  • In negotiations over the price of a car, women cast as buyers set negotiation
  • performance aspirations on par with men following the primes ($8,116.54 vs. $8,178.56 out of $10,000), a significant improvement from the control condition ($8,363.44 vs. $8,189.90).
  • In negotiations over the price of a car, women’s perception of fitting into the negotiating context did not have a significant effect on their negotiation performance aspirations, although women’s perception of fit was significantly higher in the masculine-supplement prime condition than in the control condition (5.08 vs. 4.34 on a 7-point scale).

These findings showed that the masculine-supplement prime and feminine-complement prime help eliminate the gender gap in negotiations, improving women’s economic performance. Women’s perception of fitting into the negotiating context partially explained the impact of the masculine-supplement prime, though not the feminine-complement prime. In real-world negotiations, women can use these primes to improve their performance.


In the first study, 78 physicians (50% women) in an American executive education program were prepared for a negotiation with a masculine-supplement prime, which involved recalling past assertive behavior. In this study, the masculine-supplement prime instructed participants to think and write about three events in their life that embodied assertiveness, defending their own interest, and being forceful. Using a between-subjects design, paired men and women were randomly assigned to either the masculine-supplement prime condition or the control condition, and then acted as the buyer and seller in a negotiation about the price of motorcycle headlights. This scenario, using auto parts and manufacturing transaction of motorcycle headlights, was specifically chosen for the negotiation because research has shown it to be gender role incongruent for women and not for men. Performance was calculated as the surplus. The buyer’s maximum price was US$35 and the seller’s minimum price was US$10 per unit. The total surplus to be divided between the two negotiators was equal to US$25 per unit. Any difference from a surplus of $12.50 contributed to analysis for gender differences in negotiation.

In the second study, 112 Israeli undergraduate students (50% women) were prepared for a negotiation with a feminine-complement prime, which involved imagining negotiating for a friend. This study followed the first study’s design. However, this study replaced the masculine-supplement prime with a feminine-complement prime, instructing participants to imagine negotiating on behalf of a close friend and write about it.

In the third study, 996 Amazon Mechanical Turk workers (46% women) completed an online experiment with the primes. Instead of placing participants in pairs like the previous studies, this study tested the primes on individuals independently by examining performance aspirations. After engaging in the masculine-supplement prime, feminine-complement prime, or control, participants were asked to report their aspiration for the price of a car, their expected outcome for the negotiation, and their perception of fitting in with the negotiation. 

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