"Gender and conflict resolution and negotiation: What the literature tells us"
Ira G. Parghi
Student-at-law, Tory, Tory, DesLauriers & Binnington
Bianca Cody Murphy
We would like to thank Professor Jane Mansbridge of the Kennedy School of
Government, Harvard University, for her unwavering intellectual support and friendship
throughout this project. She helped make our work on this paper challenging, rewarding,
and a great deal of fun.
"Gender and conflict resolution and negotiation: What the literature tells us"
Ira G. Parghi and Bianca Cody Murphy
The question of whether and how gender influences conflict resolution and negotiation
has received a fair amount of academic attention. Some researchers are attracted to this
area of research in response to the fact that "[s]kepticism surrounding women's ability to
adopt managerial roles and responsibilities has prevailed since the advent of women
within the corporate hierarchy" (Portello & Long, 1994, p. 683). These researchers want
to explore and explode the traditional view, long an impediment to women's progress
through the managerial ranks, that women are not "as good as men" at handling conflict
or at negotiating. Other theorists, taking to heart either traditional cultural stereotypes or
the theories of cultural feminists, have sought to explore whether women really do speak
in "a different voice" than men when negotiating or handling conflict (Korabik, Baril, &
Watson, 1993). Do women communicate differently than men in such situations? Do they
behave differently? Do they pursue different outcomes?
This literature review looks at some of the more recent academic research on the links
between gender and both negotiation and conflict resolution. It is not an exhaustive study
of the literature. Rather, this literature review focuses on empirical work primarily from
psychology and management journals: it uses two specific sets of keywords; and it is
particularly concerned with adult subjects in non-intimate relationships.
The first stage of our research was to perform literature searches in the PsycINFO and
Sociofile academic databases. Within each of these two databases, literature searches
were done on two topics: "gender and conflict resolution," and "gender and negotiation."
This initial search yielded over 350 citations. The "gender and conflict resolution" search
yielded an initial total of 89 citations from PsycINFO and 51 from Sociofile. The "gender
and negotiation" search yielded 105 citations from PsycINFO and 111 from Sociofile.
Most of these articles came from psychology journals, including journals that focus on
issues such as sex roles, personality, counseling, and women's studies. Some articles
came from business journals. A smaller number came from legal journals or journals
specifically focusing on negotiation or conflict. Our selection of the PsycINFO and
Sociofile databases means that our literature searches did not focus on the legal or peace
studies literature on gender and conflict resolution and negotiation. Nor did we use an
exhaustive set of keywords. We did not use "women and conflict resolution", "women
and negotiation", or "women/gender and conflict/ competition/cooperation." Literature
provided by a more exhaustive search would no doubt have been illuminating as well.
Our goal, however, was not to be exhaustive, but to do a thorough examination of a
defined "wedge" of the literature on these topics.
The second stage was to narrow this pool. We eliminated duplicate articles, articles with
non-adult subjects (of high school age or younger), and articles that were fundamentally
off-topic (for instance, one article was concerned with "negotiation" as the act of trying to
understand new and unfamiliar words). This process narrowed our target to 18 citations
from PsycInfo and 24 from Sociofile on "gender and conflict resolution," and 19 citations
from PsycInfo and 5 from Sociofile on "gender and negotiation." We read each of these
66 articles thoroughly.
In the third stage, we further narrowed the pool to sources that were quantitatively
empirical. This process resulted in a total of 29 studies for inclusion in this analysis—13
on negotiation and 16 on conflict resolution. From the original pool of over 350 citations,
we focused on these 29 empirical studies.
III. DESCRIPTION OF THE STUDIES
A. Experimental Subjects
Ten of the 29 studies relied on undergraduate students as subjects. (One of these ten used
a sample consisting of 95% undergraduate students and of 5% graduate students. We
have classified this study as using undergraduate students.) Three studies used MBA
graduate students, four used managers, three used employees, two used a mix of
employees and managers, two used business people, and two used other recruited adults.
One study looked at workplace grievance procedure outcomes, as well as union
representatives. Two studies were meta-analyses.
A few points on the choice of subjects are worth noting here. First, a substantial number
of these studies used college undergraduates as experimental subjects. Undergraduates
provide a convenient and accessible sample for researchers. However, the use of
undergraduates in many of these studies raises the perennial but important question of
how readily conclusions about undergraduate students can be transferred to the
population at large. This problem did not affect both subject areas equally. Studies on
conflict resolution used managers and employees much more frequently than studies on
negotiation, which relied more on student samples. Eight of the studies on conflict
resolution used employees, managers, or some combination thereof as subjects; by
contrast, only one of the studies on negotiation did. To the extent that we are interested in
how gender affects conflict resolution and negotiation in the workplace and in other real-
life settings, this heavy use of undergraduates points to an important gap in the research
Second, almost none of the studies indicated anything about the ethnic or class make-up
of the subject pool. While some of the subject pools may be fairly diverse in these
respects -- for instance, some of the undergraduate student samples may be
heterogeneous, depending on the universities from which they are drawn -- we have no
way of knowing whether this is the case. Much of the current research seems to assume
that gender is the only, or the most prominent, dimension along which negotiation or
conflict resolution styles may vary. Yet, it is possible that race, ethnicity, class, rural or
urban background, or region and the interaction of these variables with gender may well
be important in shaping approaches to conflict and negotiation. At present, the research
does not enable us to grapple with these questions.
B. Experimental Methods
The studies varied greatly with respect to experimental methods. Nine of the 29 studies
relied on self-reports -- subjects used surveys or questionnaires to describe their own
approaches to negotiation or conflict resolution. One relied on third-party reporting –
subordinate employees reported on their supervisors' approaches to conflict resolution or
negotiation. Four studies drew on field observation, seven used lab observation, and one
relied on interviews. Five studies used a combination of methods, typically a combination
of lab observation and self-reports. As mentioned earlier, two studies were meta-analyses.
Again, a few points on the methods of gathering data are worth noting. First, a significant
number of these studies, particularly in the field of conflict resolution, relied largely or
wholly on self-report by subjects. Self-report is not as reliable a measure of actual
behavior as third-party reports, field observation, or lab observation; it relies on recall
and judgment much more than other methodological approaches. To the extent that it is
actual behavior, rather than perceptions of behavior, in which we are interested, this
reliance on self-report is problematic. However, self-report may be more appropriate if
we are interested in the actors' intentions, motivations, or perceptions.
Some studies used a combination of self-report and other methods. As becomes apparent
below, in many of these studies, self-report yielded rather different results from the other
methods of research. This suggests the potential shortcomings of self-report, and, more
importantly, demonstrates the importance of the distinction between self-perception and
actual behavior, a theme to which this review returns later.
Second, the use of laboratory observation also poses potential problems. Unlike field
observation, which reports people's behaviors in their natural environments, lab
observation relies on constructed and to some extent artificial scenarios of negotiation or
conflict resolution. Lab studies can design the problem scenario and instruct subjects in
such ways as to limit the behaviors observed and thus bias results. For instance,
participants in salary negotiation role plays are sometimes told to negotiate in order to
obtain "the highest possible salary" -- an instruction that prevents them from pursuing
other objectives that may in reality be important to them, such as better working
conditions or professional recognition. If men and women wished to pursue different
objectives in their pay negotiations, this kind of experimental set-up would prevent
researchers from uncovering such differences.
Finally, almost none of the research relies on post-role-play discussions with subjects,
also known as debriefing. This is unfortunate, because at least as helpful as observing
differences in subjects' behavior would be understanding the motivations underlying the
differences in their behavior. For instance, if research based on role-plays suggests that
women negotiate in as "competitive" a fashion as men do, debriefing would help
researchers find out why this is so. It may be that women simply feel as comfortable as
men negotiating competitively. Or it may be that women are more likely than men to
worry that appearing "soft" during negotiation will lead male opponents to take
advantage of them. These differences in motivation have potentially vast implications for
this field of research. Yet current research does not allow us to uncover them.
The following discussion on findings is separated into two broad sections. Part A
addresses findings from the literature on gender and conflict resolution. Part B looks at
findings from the literature on gender and negotiation. These broad sections, in turn, are
divided into sub-sections, each of which discusses a separate theme that emerges from the
Part A: Gender and Conflict Resolution
As the preceding methodological discussion indicates, the literature searches revealed
fifteen articles on gender and conflict resolution. Of these fifteen articles, only five are
explored in the following discussion. Six of the fifteen articles were less useful to this
study because of their topics: three were more concerned with structural discrimination
than with conflict resolution, one looked primarily at interpersonal confrontation, one
was interested in international rather than sex-based comparisons of conflict resolution
styles, and one looked mostly at formal conflict resolution outcomes. Three of the fifteen
articles focused on intimate relationships, a subject that this literature review does not
address. Finally one of the fifteen articles that we do not discuss defined different styles
of conflict management in such a way as to blur together many of the differences in style
that this review is interested in exploring.
We explore five main themes: the effect of sex on conflict resolution style, the effect of
stereotypic gender roles ("masculine," "feminine," or "androgynous") on conflict
resolution style, the effect of managerial rank on conflict resolution style, the effect of
sex on others' satisfaction with conflict resolution, and the effect of sex on perceptions of
effectiveness at resolving conflict.
1. The Effect of Sex on Conflict Resolution Style
The evidence on the question of whether sex (i.e. being male or female) affects conflict
resolution style is mixed. There is mild, qualified support for the view that sex makes
some difference; however, there is also support for the counter view that sex makes no
difference at all. Significantly, unlike most of the studies in this field, the two studies
discussed here relied on field and lab observation, and therefore were particularly
The most useful research on this question has been done by Papa and Natalle (1989).
Their study relied on field observation of 108 employees and managers from a single,
large workplace. Papa and Natalle divided the employees and managers into pairs and
asked them to discuss an actual issue arising from their workplace – namely, whether
their workplace should adopt a process of participatory decision making (PDM). The
pairs of subjects were constructed to consist of people who disagreed with one another on
this question. Papa and Natalle observed how the subjects used seven different conflict
resolution styles in the course of their discussions. The seven conflict resolution styles
they catalogued were: bargaining, reasons, friendliness, assertiveness, coalition, appeal to
higher authority, and use of sanctions.
The study did find that over time subjects tended to adopt different conflict resolution
styles, based on their gender. Thus, male-male dyads used assertiveness and reason
consistently over time, which the researchers said accords with gender stereotypes.
Female-female dyads tended to use assertiveness and reason at the beginning, which the
researchers said does not accord with gender stereotypes. However, the female-female
dyads then switched to bargaining, which the researchers said does accord with gender
stereotypes, on the assumption that bargaining, negotiation and the exchange of benefits
or favors are things women tend to do more. (It is unclear why the researchers consider
the use of bargaining to be a feminine strategy; they do not explain this view.) Male-
female dyads used reason and bargaining throughout, which the researchers said does
accord with gender stereotypes, because the addition of a female to the mix resulted in an
increase in the use of bargaining.
However, these findings only point to a small gender effect on conflict resolution style.
First, the female-female dyads, like the male-male dyads, began by drawing on
assertiveness and reason, though they then switched to bargaining later on in their
interactions. This suggests that, at the very least, the effects of gender on conflict
resolution style do not manifest themselves consistently over time. Second, in what Papa
and Natalle called a departure from gender stereotypes, all of the dyads in the study used
friendliness frequently across time. In short, what has traditionally been seen as a
"women's" approach to conflict resolution may not necessarily be so.
Indeed, a study by Korabik, Baril, and Watson (1993) backs up the view that gender has
no effect on conflict resolution style. Korabik et al. used a mix of experimental methods
on their sample of 196 part-time evening MBA students. One of their methods was lab
observation, which concluded that were no differences in conflict resolution styles
between males and females. On balance, then, the evidence on this point seems highly
2. The Effect of Stereotypic Gender Roles on Conflict Resolution Style
There are two broad sets of research on the question of whether gender roles ( i.e.
whether a person acts in a "masculine," "feminine," or "androgynous" fashion) affect
conflict resolution style. The first set of research relies on self-reporting by the subjects
themselves (Portello & Long, 1994). The second set of research relies on third-party
reporting, namely subordinate employees filling out questionnaires about their managers
(Jurma & Powell, 1994).
a. The effect of self-reported gender roles on conflict resolution style
Portello and Long (1994) studied a pool of 134 female managers and found only limited
support for the notion that gender role affects conflict resolution style. They asked their
subjects, all female managers, to complete questionnaires describing their personal
characteristics. They then classified the subjects as "masculine" if they scored high on
"masculine" attributes such as being independent, competitive, or assertive; "feminine" if
they scored high on "feminine" attributes such as being emotional, nurturing and
sensitive to others; or "androgynous" if they scored high on both sets of attributes.
Portello and Long found that those female managers who scored high on "masculine"
attributes were more likely to use the "dominating" style of conflict resolution, which
Portello and Long described as "competitive," "persuasive," and "forceful." One obvious
problem here is that the independent variable (gender role) is defined in terms (e.g.
"competitive") that also appear in the definition of the dependent variable. Portello and
Long found in addition that female managers who scored high on "masculine" attributes
were less likely to use an "avoidant" style of conflict resolution, which consists of
withdrawing from and sidestepping conflict. They noted that this finding accords with
gender stereotypes. In a similar vein, those female managers who were defined as
"androgynous" were more likely to use an "integrating" style of conflict resolution, which
involves negotiating, problem solving, and collaborating. Portello and Long do note,
however, that the "integrating" style of conflict resolution was the most frequently
reported style overall in their study.
Their study found contrary evidence as well. In particular, female managers who scored
high on self-reported "feminine" attributes were not more likely to use compromising,
obliging, or avoidant styles of conflict resolution. The researchers noted that this finding
does not accord with gender stereotypes. More to the point, it also lends doubt to the view
that gender role affects conflict resolution style.
b. The effect of third party-reported gender roles on conflict resolution styles
Jurma and Powell (1994) looked at the conflict resolution styles of 45 male and female
managers. They asked employees to describe their managers' personal attributes; these
attributes were then used to divide the 45 managers into three gender role categories:
"masculine," "feminine," or "androgynous" (i.e. ranking high on both "masculine" and
"feminine" attributes). The employees then evaluated their managers' communication
behavior in managing conflict. Thus, like Portello and Long (1994), Jurma and Powell
used personal characteristics or behavior to define managers' gender roles; they then
studied the connections between those gender roles and different conflict resolution
styles. Unlike Portello and Long, however, Jurma and Powell drew on a subject pool of
both male and female managers. Moreover, they relied on third-party reports, rather than
self-reports by managers themselves.
Jurma and Powell found that managers who ranked as "androgynous" were perceived by
subordinates as better at handling conflict than managers who ranked as "masculine" or
"feminine." Moreover, managers who ranked as "feminine" were rated as having better
communication styles in conflict management than managers who ranked as "masculine."
These findings lend weight to the suggestion that, at least at the level of other people's
perceptions, gender role does affect conflict resolution style.
The Effect of Managerial Rank on Conflict Resolution Style
The question of whether managerial rank affects conflict resolution style is also a thorny
one. The literature on gender and conflict resolution yields three seemingly mutually
exclusive answers to this question, and, as is discussed later, the literature on gender and
negotiation is also ambiguous.
Some of the research suggests that gender differences in conflict resolution styles are in
fact wholly accounted for by differences in managerial rank. In other words, there is no
gender effect on conflict resolution style: there is only a managerial rank effect. This is
one of the findings that emerged from a study by Chusmir and Mills (1989), who used
self-reporting to study the conflict resolution styles of 201 managers. Chusmir and Mills
found that there was a link between organization level and conflict resolution style:
specifically, as organizational level increased, both male and female managers were more
likely to report a "competing" style of conflict resolution, and less likely to report an
"accommodating" style. More importantly, the researchers found that if hierarchical level
was held constant, males and females reported similar conflict resolution styles.
This finding was echoed by Korabik et al. (1993), who relied in part on self-reporting by
MBA student subjects. They found that among those MBA students with management
experience, males and females reported the same conflict resolution styles. In other
words, controlling for level of management experience, there was no gender effect.
Yet these same studies also supported the finding that managerial rank, rather than acting
independently, interacts with gender in shaping the conflict resolution styles of managers.
Chusmir and Mills (1989) found that although higher organizational level makes both
male and female managers more likely to report a competing style of conflict resolution
than an accommodating style, this effect is especially pronounced for male managers.
Korabik et al. (1993), also found a connection between rank and gender in the self-
reporting portion of their study. They found that although MBA students in the sample
who had management experience reported similar conflict resolution styles regardless of
gender, those MBA students who lacked management experience did vary along lines of
gender. In particular, female managers without management experience reported more
integrating, obliging, and compromising styles than did male managers without
There is, finally, highly tenuous support for the view that managerial rank has no effect at
all. Portello and Long (1994)'s assessments of managers' self-reports led them to
conclude that organizational level has no effect on conflict resolution style. However,
their study, unlike the two other studies that considered managerial rank, was not
concerned with the link between actual sex and conflict resolution style. Rather, it
focused on the connection between gender role ("masculine," "feminine," or
"androgynous") and conflict resolution style, and found, as noted above, that some such
connection may exist.
The problem, however, is that gender role and managerial rank may in themselves be
related to one another. Higher managerial rank may correlate with the possession of
"masculine" traits, either because of selection effects (only women who are "masculine"
seek out or are selected for promotion into managerial positions), or because of
socialization effects (women who are elevated into managerial positions adopt the
"masculine" conflict resolution traits that their environment inculcates in them). The
possession of such "masculine" traits, in turn, may be connected to conflict resolution
style, as Portello and Long themselves observed. As a result, it seems strained to assert
that managerial rank and conflict resolution style are not in themselves related to one
On balance, then, the view that managerial rank acts in concert with gender in affecting
conflict resolution behavior, and even the stronger view that managerial rank accounts
completely for differences in conflict resolution style, both enjoy stronger empirical
support than the claim that managerial rank does not matter at all. Yet there is hardly a
consensus on this point.
The Effect of Sex on Others' Satisfaction with Conflict Resolution
Although most of the research findings discussed above focus on conflict resolution style,
some of the studies from which they emerge also consider the issue of how sex and
gender role are related to others' satisfaction with conflict resolution. Jurma and Powell
(1994), for instance, who considered the nexus between perceived gender role and
conflict resolution style, found that there was indeed a link between perceived gender role
and others' satisfaction with conflict resolution. Specifically, employees were more
satisfied with their leaders, more satisfied with their tasks, and more "intrinsically"
satisfied with those managers they perceived as "androgynous" than with those managers
they perceived as either "masculine" or "feminine."
Yet this finding, too, has not gone unchallenged. Papa and Natalle (1989), who relied on
field observation rather than on third-party reporting like Jurma and Powell (1994), found
no reported satisfaction differences between male-male, female-female, and male-female
dyads. To the extent that field observation is a more accurate reflector of reality than
third-party reporting, the Papa and Natalle finding that gender does not affect satisfaction
may be more convincing. However, in contexts where perceptions rather than behavior
matter, the Jurma and Powell finding of higher satisfaction with "androgynous" managers
may also be important.