Carl H. Lindner College of BusinessCarl H. Lindner College of BusinessUniversity of Cincinnati

Carl H. Lindner College of Business

University of Cincinnati Sales Course Aims to Bridge the Gender Gap in Confidence

Monday, December 19, 2016 6:25 PM
An experiment around a professional selling course for women includes a new lesson: How to succeed at failure.
Jane Sojka

Jane Sojka

By: Dawn Fuller
Phone: (513) 556-1823

A classroom experiment at the University of Cincinnati is revealing new ways to help professional women recover from failure, amid past research that shows that women consistently score lower on confidence than men. The experiment in the UC Carl H. Lindner College of Busines was first launched last spring, as a course in professional selling – a course that typically does not attract women – focused solely on recruiting women. As a result of its success, two similar courses are underway for the current spring semester.

Jane Sojka, a UC professor of marketing, taught two sections of the sales course last spring – one section that heavily recruited about 25 women – and the traditional, mixed-gender section primarily dominated by men. In both sections, an activity around succeeding at failure was added to the course. 

Preliminary research on the outcomes of the experiment suggests that women in the nearly all-female class reduced their fear of failure and gained higher confidence in their sales ability than students in the predominantly male, mixed-gender class. The confidence outcomes in the female-dominated class were significantly higher than both males and females in the mixed-gender classroom. Sojka attributes these differences to the all-female composition of the course, experiential learning and an assignment on overcoming failure.

“There are several confidence killers that affect women,” says Sojka. “One is perfectionism – ‘I’m never going to do it until it’s perfect,’ so women never do it. Another closely tied confidence killer is fear of failure. Once again, if women are afraid of failing, they would rather pull themselves out of the competition than risk failing. And then, there’s resilience. Past research shows that when men fail, they get over it quickly and try again. When women fail, they’re more likely to ruminate about their failure and quit rather than risk failure and try again.” To teach women how to handle failure, Sojka says she helped the class identify strategies for dealing with failure, ranging from avoiding rumination (allow yourself 5 minutes to grieve and then get over it), to stopping the “you’re so stupid” tape from running in their head, to confiding in a friend. Over the course of the semester, each student kept a journal in which the student noted a failure (for example, didn’t get the job offer), cited the strategy for handling the failure and reflected on the experience. By the end of the semester, Sojka says fear of failure was no longer a concern. “I’d ask them, what happens when the customer tells you ‘no’ during a sales call? They answered, ‘Nothing.’  The predominantly female class had learned to move on to the next customer,” Sojka says. Katie Fisher, an accounting/finance/marketing major, took the mixed-gender sales class two years ago and worked as a teaching assistant in Sojka’s female-dominated sales class in 2015. She says she noticed how women performed differently in the different classrooms. “When students had to give their assigned elevator speech to fellow females, there was a different level of comfort. They came off as more confident and delivered their speech with more conviction. “One of the assignments involved resilience. If they ran into any kind of roadblock, they’d have to use resilience-themed messages to move past it,” continues Fisher. “Things aren’t always going to go your way and you need to learn how to bounce back from what you’ve learned. I feel that men often think they’re more deserving and that helps them succeed, so moving past these roadblocks for women is really important. I think that goes beyond sales and beyond the classroom. It’s something that’s valuable for women throughout their careers.” Brianna Goumballe, a marketing major and a professional sales minor, was one of the students who took the course in 2015. “I really liked the role-playing. Everyone seemed open and willing to talk. They put their best foot forward when they may have been more hesitant to do so in a mixed-gender class. “Even if sales is not your career, you’re always going to be selling something, so this is a vital skill for women,” says Goumballe. “Eventually, we’re going to be selling our skills in a job interview, or negotiating a salary. That was one of the things that stood out in that class – how to be confident and succeed in negotiations.” “I think the result of this research is bigger than just an approach to sales,” Sojka says. “Women typically won’t negotiate a salary on their first job. They’re less likely to run for office unless they’re coaxed into it. This is not a case of women versus men. When women win, everyone wins.” Sojka says the success of the course led to the development of two sections of professional selling for women this spring. Research on the project was funded by a P&G Higher Education Grant Program and was conducted by Sojka, along with Karen Machleit, head and professor of marketing, and Corinne Novell, a post doctorate fellow in the marketing department.