A social-cognitive approach to understanding gender differences in negotiator ethics: The role of moral identity

Women are more likely than men to have strongly internalized moral identities, leading to more ethical negotiation practices—but the situation can suppress women’s ethical strength.


Negotiations are a basic way in which resources, including economic opportunities, are divided. Women face discriminatory treatment in many common negotiation scenarios, such as greater backlash than men for negotiating their salaries. However, women negotiators have strengths that might help to equalize their outcomes over the longer-term in real world contexts. Past research has found that in business and negotiation, women hold higher ethical standards and are less prone than men to engage in unethical practices such as deception. In fact, gender disparities in interest in lucrative jobs emerge only when those jobs are portrayed as requiring unethical behavior.

Despite consistent patterns that suggest there is a gender gap in ethics, little is known about why such gender differences occur. Here, the authors hypothesize that gender differences in how people define themselves underlie the disparities in ethical behavior. Moral identity is the extent to which individuals define themselves in terms of moral traits—for instance, as being fair, honest, generous, and hard-working. Women might be expected to have stronger moral identities than men because gender roles often tie women to more communal and interdependent identities and morality can help to build relationships. 

In this series of five studies, the authors test whether moral identity can explain ethical and unethical behavior in negotiations. In Study 1, they compare women’s and men’s moral identity strength. In Study 2, they compare women’s and men’s willingness to rationalize or engage in unethical negotiation behavior. In Study 3, they test the relationship between moral identity strength and such unethical behavior. In Studies 4 and 5, they examine how differing contexts such as financial incentives affect women’s and men’s negotiation ethics.


Studies 1-3 found that women have more strongly internalized moral identities than men, leading women to negotiate more ethically.

  • In Study 1, a meta-analysis of 33 studies found a significant gender difference in moral identity strength, such that a randomly chosen woman was approximately 66% more likely to have a strongly internalized moral identity than a randomly chosen man. Notably, there was a lot of variability across studies and a lot of overlap between men and women, suggesting additional factors might help explain these differences.
  • In Study 2, when hypothetically negotiating the sale of a used car with known problems to a stranger, women were less likely than men to negotiate unethically.
    • Women were significantly less likely than men to rationalize unethical behaviors such as not disclosing the car’s problems (3.03 vs 3.49 on a 7-point scale).
    • Women were significantly less likely than men to take advantage of the situation and negotiate opportunistically (2.93 vs 3.40 on a 7-point scale).
  • In Study 3, women’s stronger moral identities (6.22 vs 5.93 on a 7-point scale) led to less moral disengagement (2.79 vs 3.17 on a 7-point scale), which in turn reduced the likelihood of endorsing unethical negotiating tactics (2.71 vs 3.31), compared to men.

Studies 4-5 found that situational factors could suppress gender differences, leading women to negotiate more like men.  The gender differences in ethical negotiating behavior were overridden by situational pressures created by financial incentives. Women again displayed stronger moral identities than men, but when given strong incentives to deceive a job candidate in a salary negotiation, women and men behaved similarly.  It is therefore unlikely that women negotiators are disadvantaged by their ethical strengths.  However, organizations may not always capitalize on these strengths if managers inadvertently create incentives for people to succeed through unethical action.

  • In Study 4, women were more responsive than men to the size of financial incentives (i.e. $150 vs. $50):
    • Women were unlikely to lie about the job’s stability for a small financial incentive but more likely to lie for a large financial incentive (7% vs. 28%).
    • Men were similarly likely to lie about the job’s stability whether the financial incentive was small or large (33% vs. 23%).
  • In Study 5, women were more responsive than men to the type of financial incentives (i.e. performance-based vs. randomly-awarded incentives):
    • Women expressed significantly greater intention to lie for a performance-based incentive rather than a random incentive.
    • Men expressed similar intention to lie for either a performance-based or a random incentive.

In short, women’s stronger moral identities reduce unethical negotiating behavior. Relative to men, women more strongly refuse to rationalize such behavior (e.g., by blaming the victim or denying its impact). Over the long-term, women’s ethical strengths might help to close the gender gap in economic outcomes by attracting high quality exchange partners. Ethical negotiators are the ones people want to do business with over time.  Women’s ethical strengths could be seen as assets for effective collaboration. However, women’s relatively strong moral identity does not always translate into more ethical behavior relative to men, as situational factors such as financial incentives can diminish the expression of this ethical foundation.  To capitalize on women’s strengths, organizations must pay keen attention to the incentives they generate.


Study 1 conducted a meta-analysis of social science studies that measured gender differences in the strength of moral identity internalization. The meta-analysis included 33 prior studies with 19,797 subjects.

Study 2 recruited 217 adults (42% women) from Amazon Mechanical Turk. Participants read a scenario in which they were negotiating the sale of a car with a minor and a major issue, and could choose whether or not to reveal the issues to potential buyers. They then responded to questions about moral disengagement (32 items, 7-point scale) and opportunism (3 items, 7-point scale).

Study 3 recruited 324 undergraduate students (44% women) at two universities. Participants considered the characteristics of a moral person, then reported how important it was to have these characteristics themselves (5 items, 7-point scale). They then read the car negotiation scenario from Study 2 and completed the same moral disengagement scale. They also rated the appropriateness of unethical negotiation tactics not specific to the scenario (16 items, 7-point scale).

Study 4 re-analyzed data provided by Aquino et al. from a 2009 study. The analysis included 112 undergraduate business students (59% women) who played the role of a manager in a salary negotiation scenario in which incentives for the manager were either random or performance-based, and small or large. The job candidate placed value on job stability of at least two years, while the manager knew the position would be eliminated in six months. Before reading the scenario, participants completed a measure of moral identity strength (5 items, 5-point scale). After videotaped negotiations, independent raters coded the manager’s deceptiveness on 4 levels: truth telling, refusing to answer, concealing, and lying.

Study 5 recruited 194 undergraduate students (52% women). Participants read instructions similar to the manager role in the salary negotiation scenario from Study 4, with a fixed-price incentive that was either ­random or performance-based, but did not do the role play. They then completed a measure of moral identity strength (5 items, 7-point scale) and reported intention to lie if asked about job security (2 items, 100-point scale and 9-point scale), among filler questions.

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