Many women negotiators believe that they face challenges their male counterparts don’t. Social scientists agree. They’ve found, for example, that when negotiating a purchase women are likely to hear a higher initial quote than men would. A recent study explored whether negotiators lie more often to women than men. It found evidence that both men and women lie more often when negotiating with a woman. Fortunately the researchers also tested various hypotheses explaining why that might be true. Their results indicate a few relatively simple strategies that could help women (and men) discourage lying in negotiation.


How can we eliminate the gender bias without returning to old-school negotiations?

The researchers tested their theories by putting business school students through simulated negotiations over the sale of some hypothetical real estate. Negotiators for the buyer knew that their client wanted to build a high-rise hotel on the property, against the seller’s wishes. The scientists expected that some of the buy-side negotiators would lie to keep the seller happy, especially if they were negotiating with a woman. They were right. Just 3% of the men in the exercise admitted deceiving other men. But when the other party was a woman, men lied 24% of the time. (Women lied to each other more often too, although by a smaller margin. Women lied to other women 17% of the time, while only 11% lied to men.) These were only the lies the liars admitted to—the actual numbers could have been higher.

The researchers looked into what might cause that troubling disparity. They suggest that it could be rooted in popular misconceptions, such as the stereotype that women are less aggressive or not as interested in bargaining as men. Those stereotype work in two ways. First, they encourage people who negotiate with women to underestimate their competence. Second, and more insidiously, they can cause women to doubt their own competence. If they signal that doubt to their counterpart, it feeds the perception that they’re incompetent even if it isn’t true.

Those stereotypes affect how people behave in negotiations. Unscrupulous negotiators are more likely to try to take advantage of someone they think isn’t skilled or aggressive enough to do something about it. In other words, they’re more likely to lie if they think their counterpart won’t catch them. That kind of opportunistic deception is bad enough, but the researchers also found some evidence that negotiators lower their ethical standards when negotiating with an incompetent counterpart. Even someone who believes it’s wrong to lie to a peer might decide it’s OK to deceive someone whose skills they don’t respect.

Interestingly, one thing the researchers thought might increase lying turned out to not make a difference: warmth. Surveys showed that men and women both tend to think of women as generally nicer and friendlier than men. In theory, if unethical negotiators thought that women were too friendly to be on the lookout for lies or to call them out, they might be more likely to lie. In fact, though, being seen as “warm” didn’t have much effect.

So when negotiators feel a counterpart isn’t competent or aggressive enough, they’re more likely to lie. Seeing their counterpart as easygoing, on the other hand, didn’t seem to make much difference. Why the two separate results? The researchers theorize that it’s because of how negotiators justify lying. Some people are going to tell themselves it’s OK to lie to someone they don’t respect: she’s incompetent, it’s not my fault if she couldn’t keep up. On the other hand, it’s very difficult to pretend that it’s OK to lie to someone because they’re too nice.

These results are preliminary, and a lot of research remains to be done on gender bias in negotiation—especially as it pertains to honesty. But this research reinforces the lesson that it’s important for negotiators to send the right signals. Men and women both should find ways to signal that they’re competent and careful, in order to show their counterpart that there’s no point in lying. Questions are a good way to do that. They help negotiators uncover lies, of course—using both specific, detailed questions and broad, open-ended inquiries makes it much easier to see whether the other party’s answers are consistent and trustworthy. But perhaps more importantly, asking serious and careful questions signals to the other side of the table that you are paying attention and won’t be easily deceived. That goes right to the heart of the stereotypes that fuel this gender bias. While sending these signals is useful for men and women alike, it may be particularly important for women who feel they’re the subject of this kind of stereotyping.