Helping Women Conquer 'Confidence Killers'

A nearly all-woman classroom helped those enrolled become more resilient and more willing to fail.
Helping Women Conquer 'Confidence Killers'
IN SPRING 2015, the University of Cincinnati’s Lindner College of Business in Ohio offered two sections of a course in professional selling, with a singular twist. For one section, the school heavily recruited women; for the other, the school allowed students to enroll normally. The first section ended up with 25 women, who made up nearly the entire class; the second included a traditional mix of men and women, with men making up the majority.

This experimental approach was the focus of a research project, funded by the P&G Higher Education Grant Program. Its goal was to determine whether women could be encouraged to be more confident when facing failure. Professor of marketing Jane Sojka taught both sections and conducted the research with professor of marketing Karen Machleit and postdoctoral fellow Corinne Novell.

Past research has shown that women exhibit less confidence than men in the workplace, explains Sojka. “Women typically won’t negotiate a salary on their first job,” she notes. “They’re less likely to run for office unless they’re coaxed into it.”

Research shows that while men rebound and move on from failure more easily, Sojka says, women often fixate on their failures—so much so that they avoid risking failure altogether. She cites two factors as “confidence killers” for women: perfectionism and a fear of failure. However, Sojka and her co-researchers found that the women who attended the Lindner College’s nearly all-female professional selling course exhibited more confidence and experienced less fear of failure than their counterparts in the other mixed-gender course, likely because they simply felt more comfortable.

The researchers also included additional content on overcoming failure in both sections, so that all students—men and women—could develop their resilience. That content included discussion of strategies for dealing with failure—such as avoiding ruminating on failure, reducing negative self-talk, and sharing their experiences with friends. In addition, students completed a journaling assignment in which they wrote about specific failures they had experienced and strategies they used for handling them.

Student Katie Fisher took the course two years ago as part of a mixed-gender group of students. Last spring, she worked as Sojka’s teaching assistant in the experimental section, and she noticed a difference in the confidence and comfort levels of the women who were members of that class.

“If they ran into any kind of roadblock, they’d have to use resilience-themed messages to move past it,” says Fisher. “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.”

Because of last year’s successful results, this spring the school expanded the project to include two sections, now titled Women in Sales, and one mixed-gender section called Professional Selling. One of the sections for Women in Sales includes 29 women; the other, 23 women and “three brave men,” says Sojka. “The Women in Sales class is so popular that we had to turn students away due to space limitations.” As a result, the school will offer three to four sections of Women in Sales next spring, and will begin offering it in the fall as well starting in 2017.

Sojka, Machleit, and Novell hope to present their research based on the Women in Sales courses at an upcoming conference for the Global Sales Science Institute, and they also plan to share their findings with other schools in a future publication. By helping women overcome fear of failure, business schools set them up for success in all aspects of their future careers, says Sojka. “This is not a case of women versus men. When women win, everyone wins.”