EPISODE 469: This One Thing Has Empowered Over 1,000 Women in Sales Students University of Cincinnati Prof Jane Sojka Says

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[EDITOR’S NOTE: This is a replay of the Women in Sales virtual learning session sponsored by the Institute for Excellence in Sales on February 1. 2022. It featured an interview with Distinguished Teaching Professor of Marketing & Professional Selling at the Lindner College of Business at the University of Cincinnati.]

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JANE’S TIP: “Resilience is a teachable skill. You may not have learned it, but you can learn it now. Even if it’s as simple as failure is an event, not a person. Every time you make a mistake, you remind yourself, failure is an event. It is one thing; you are still a good person. Get over it, move on.”


Gina Stracuzzi: I am so excited to welcome my guest today. I heard Dr. Sojka speak at the She Sells Summit, and I was really blown away by a lot of what she had to say. But the thing that really stuck in my mind was what you talked about with teaching this Women in Sales class to young ladies, and then you turn around and teach the same class to young men, which I loved. You’re getting such a unique perspective. I’m so excited to welcome you. I would love it if you would tell us a little bit about yourself and how you got into teaching sales at the university level.

Jane Sojka: Thank you, Gina. Thank you so much for inviting me because I do love to talk about our program and my passion for empowering women and especially women in sales. Got my PhD from Washington State University, did a dissertation on women in sales and it went nowhere. It was ahead of its time and it’s like, no, we really don’t want to do that. Fast forward, I ended up teaching sales because sooner or later universities realized, wow, this is a really good opportunity for our students.

I fell in love with it, then I fell in love with the research. While at University of Cincinnati – I’ve been at UC for 11 years now – I founded our Center For Professional Selling. This is where we connect recruiters and our top sales students. Our students get lots of job opportunities. I also started a minor in professional selling that’s open to every student across the university. You don’t have to be a business student to minor in sales. That’s opened up a lot of opportunities also. Those are fun stories.

Then my real passion is my Women in Sales course, which came about as a result of a grant that I received from Procter and Gamble back in 2015. The goal was, I think we need to do something different here. What we’re doing is not working. We’re not getting women into sales. I started the Women in Sales class thinking it was going to be a one-off, one semester, never to be seen again, and it has just expanded beyond my wildest beliefs. That’s why I’m here now.

Gina Stracuzzi: That’s amazing. There are so many things in that story that I absolutely love. Probably the biggest is, so often what happens is young adults come out of college with a bachelor’s in something which hardly makes them a master at it. They need a lot of experience, and sometimes they can’t get their foot in the door, so they end up in sales in a particular industry that maybe they’re interested in or sometimes it’s even a last ditch, “I got to get a job.” Preparing students to actually take advantage of that opportunity is brilliant, really brilliant. Hats off to you.

Jane Sojka: It has worked really well. To your point, some of my most successful students are, of all things, ballet majors. I have ballet majors, I have engineering students, I have Spanish students. I taught one course. This was a failure for freshmen thinking, okay, we’re going to get them hooked on sales when they’re freshmen. When they’re freshmen, they think they’re all going to be brand managers. They said, “Oh, no, we don’t need to sell.”

By the time students are juniors and seniors with all kinds of majors, they realize, number one, I have to learn how to sell myself or I’ll never get a job and number two, I need a job. Then they take a sales class and learn that sales isn’t really what they thought it was and that number one, they enjoy it and number two, they’re good at it and all kinds of opportunities open up. It’s been a very successful program at UC.

Gina Stracuzzi: Wow, that’s really awesome. I love people who just take a chance and start something. It’s so interesting because you know the need is there but sometimes the response is far more than you could have ever imagined, which is such a great feeling.

Jane Sojka: That’s what happened with the Women in Sales class. When we started it, I had 25 women and 2 brave men. I’m always happy to talk about my men because I love my men. I asked, how many of you want to go into sales? They just slid underneath their seats. Nobody wanted to go into sales. Why did they take the class? They were fascinated. This is a class for women in the College of Business. They were curious and they wanted to see what I was teaching.

Then before long by the end of the class, a high number of them they do go into sales because it’s not what they thought. They did not understand what it was and what women don’t realize coming into the class is that they’re very good at it. They can make a living doing it. It’s fun to watch. Now, I teach six classes of Women in Sales every year, I have over 240 women in the sales class every year, and I have had over 1,000 women go through the class since its inception. I think we’re making an impact.

Gina Stracuzzi: That is so exciting. I absolutely love that. I connected with someone this morning who is building this pipeline of sales executives across the country that can be called on to be thought leaders and experts and then be recruited in the whole thing. I was saying, you need to talk to my guest today [laughs]. You two should be working together.

Then they can all feed into the forum because when you get stuck in mid-management, and it’s hard to break through, or there’s all kinds of things that might be in your way, that’s what we do. I can see how we could just take the women and just keep moving them right along and make sure that more get accelerated into sales and then into leadership. Let’s talk a little bit about some of what you encounter in your classes, and some of the key gender gaps that you address in your teaching.

Jane Sojka: Two reasons why I started the course. One was recruiter demand. Recruiters wanted women. They want diversity. I was teaching students, they would take my Principles Of Marketing class, love it and I’d say, “Hey, don’t you want to take my sales class?” It was like, “No, no. No, I don’t want to do sales.” “Oh, come on, just try it.” I could not get women to even take a sales class, much less consider a sales career.

Then the second reason, the few women that did take the class blew me away in terms of their ability. They were always the top performers. They knew what they were doing. I would say, “Why don’t you try out for our varsity sales team? We have a competition sales team.” “Oh, no, no, I need more classes. I need a minor.” “No, I’m the coach. You got what it takes. Why don’t you apply for this job?” “Oh, no, no, I’m not good enough.” It’s that lack of confidence.

Meanwhile – and I love my men – I’d ask, I need a volunteer to do this. Hoping that my women who were the most competent would raise their hands, well, they’re in the back row hiding and my men, “Oh, I’ll do it.” I’m like, “Oh, you’re not really who I wanted to do it” [laughs]. What we found and we replicated, and this is nothing new, it’s in the literature, a disconnect. There’s an inverse relationship between confidence and competence and gender. Gender plays into that too. No one’s surprised when we found these results.

My most competent students, which were my women, lacked confidence. My most confident students were from my men, and I love their confidence. They needed to hone their skills a little bit. My job was to bring both of them up to an equal level. With women in particular, a couple of things that I work on the first half of the class because teaching them to sell is easy but if I don’t teach them these core foundational skills, I’ve wasted my time.

Number one is fear of failure. Women coming into class have a fear of failure. You know what? If you’re in sales, you know this, you’re going to be told no. You are going to be rejected. You’re not always going to win. Women in particular adopt self-limiting behaviors. We talk about this in class all the time. Perfectionism. I’m perfect, I’m not going to fail. Well, you’re going to fail. You can’t be perfect. People pleasing. If I make everybody happy, they won’t let me fail. Well, I got news for you, you’re not going to make everybody happy.

Control. I think this one’s killing women. Oh, I’m not going to delegate. I’m going to do it all myself, I’ve got to do it all. Well, you’re going to burnout. Then isolation. I’m going to pretend that I know what I’m doing and not let on that I need help. Well, you know what? You’re going to dissolve. Instead of adapting self-limiting behaviors, we practice. We literally practice failing, and getting over failure quickly. They have to learn resilience so that by the end of the class, I say, “Well, what if the buyer tells you no?” I say nothing. We move on. It’s like, yes, that’s exactly what I want you to do. Fear of failure is a big one.

Resilience. Bounce back quickly after failure. Don’t sit there and think about it. Don’t ruminate it, just get over it. That leads to confidence because with confidence, you learn confidence by practice. When you practice, you try it, you fail, you try again. You fail, well, not a problem. I’ll try it again. The other key one that I really love teaching is negotiation. If you think about negotiation, what it really is, is ask for what you want. Too often, women have been told, oh, be a good girl. No, you got to ask for the sale, you’ve got to ask for the raise, you’ve got to ask for the job. What’s the worst that can happen? They tell you no, what are you going to do? Nothing. Apply again. Yes, that’s what I want to do.

Gina Stracuzzi: Right. I will say, what’s interesting that we have witnessed in the forum – these are women who have excelled at selling, they’re working their way up the ladder in leadership. Some of those same hesitancies rear their heads again in the corporate structure. That fear of sounding silly or being shot down or mocked or whatever the case is. This idea that if you keep your head down, work hard, someone’s going to tap you on your shoulder and say, “Gina, it’s your turn.” All of these things, and somehow that ambition is a bad word. Bob, if he wants that VP job, he’s going to let everybody and their brother know about it. He’s not going to sit on it.

Jane Sojka: Well, ambition and power and strength. This is the beginning of the semester working with my women now, get used to feeling powerful. Get used to being strong. That fits very well. You can be strong and kind, you can be powerful and compassionate. They are not mutually exclusive. To your point, another thing that probably propelled this class forward, early on, we did a negotiation workshop for the students.

I sent around emails all across campus asking other women faculty to encourage their students to take the workshop. What I was shocked at was the number of high-ranking women, exactly what you’re talking about, high ranking women saying, “Can I take the workshop? I need to negotiate too.” That was when I realized I was not the only woman who did not know how to negotiate. We need to start teaching that. To your point, I think we skipped a generation. Hopefully, my generation will change that when they get into power but yes, we’ve skipped a generation and they’re all teachable skills.

Gina Stracuzzi: Yes, they are teachable skills. I think the earlier that we can start by unsocializing everything that they were taught growing up, and that’s not to say dishonor your parents or anything, but just it’s socialization of it.

Jane Sojka: Exactly. I love the way you think. That’s why I like being on this show because I don’t want to blame anybody. It’s nobody’s fault. When we know better, we do better. I’m a teacher. We can fix these things. Let’s fix them and move forward.

Gina Stracuzzi: Absolutely. I could not agree more, Jane. What are the different ways that you approach teaching women to sell?

Jane Sojka: First thing is I get them comfortable in their own style. This was really important. This is what I saw were the problems or challenges in my typical Professional Selling class because I love men, but men selling can be a little in your face, pushy. This was a self-selected class. What we found even, women coming into a men’s class, they came in with a decent fear of failure. They were okay with that. Their fear of failure actually increased after coming out of that class. I think part of it was they saw the men being pushy, and you know what? That works for men. If that works for men, that’s great. I don’t want to change it. But the women said, “No, no, that is not my style. I don’t want anything to do with that.”

I hope the women have their own style. I knew women communicated differently, I didn’t know how differently. Part of the things we do is we practice failing. I give them resilience strategies. For example, they’ll have a paper that’s due next Wednesday. They’d have to talk about a failure and usually a small one. I got a B plus, or I was going to run five miles, I only ran two miles, something like that. They use one of eight strategies we talk about in class. One of them is failure is an event, not a person.

I want them to think, instead of, oh, I’m a failure, I got a B plus. Then they go, well, I’m never going to get a degree, I’m going to live on my parents couch, but no. Failure is an event not a person. You made a mistake. You did not perform as well on the exam as what you had expected, but you’re still smart, you’re still articulate, you are still kind, you are still a good person. There’s another exam coming up. They practice that. The point of it is, did you get over the failure fast instead of beating yourself up?

Women tend to do two things when they fail. Number one, they beat themselves up. Why do we think that’s going to help us? But, we do it. The second thing is women tend to ruminate about failure more than men do. That is, we play the failure over and over and over again in our heads like the ending is going to change. All that does is imprint it in our memory. What I do is I get women out of those habits by giving them strategies. Failure is an event, not a person. See failure as courage. You know what? Good for you for running for office. Be proud of yourself. You’re the one who’s put your neck out there and you should be proud of your courage instead of, “I didn’t get elected.” They have these strategies, so they get over that fast.

Second thing and I don’t want to go too long here, but communication, body language. We work on body language a lot. What happens? I can’t stand it to see women making themselves small. What were we taught to do? Cross your legs, put your hands on your lap, or when you do that, your shoulders hunch forward, and we make ourselves small. We practice taking up space. Another word my students are never allowed to use, and I even make an assignment, you have to go one day without using the word sorry. Because women tend to apologize for things that are not their fault.

One of my all-time favorite pieces of research was a graduate professor, he had a graduate class and failed everybody on an exam and then said, “Why did you fail?” Well, the women said, I’m not good enough. I’m not smart enough. I don’t belong here. It was all their fault. The men, lousy teacher. It was your fault. Nobody denies that. Women tend to apologize for things that are not their fault. I teach my women to say, thank you for bringing that to my attention. I’ll fix it.

We do emails. “I was just wondering if you would be willing to help us out.” “Could you help?” Get to the point. What we know from research from Amy Cuddy is our body language, our communication, we communicate to others, but we also communicate it to ourselves. Every time we talk in that wimpy voice or that “Oh, I just don’t want to…” we’re hearing it. We don’t need to hear that. You need to repractice using strong and powerful language. I point out to them. When you’re strong and powerful, you’re not hurting anybody else. It’s a room full of powerful women. You’re not taking power from anyone. It’s abundance and cooperation. It’s fun to see the transition from the beginning of the semester to the end of the semester.

Gina Stracuzzi: That’s awesome. What do you think that everyone, or why even, why and what skills should everyone learn in selling?

Jane Sojka: You have to have resilience because you’re going to fail. You can’t be afraid of failure. You have to have confidence. Confidence is belief in your abilities. I think it’s really important. Confidence doesn’t say you’re going to be the best. You don’t have to be. You have to say, I can finish this race. I can speak up at this board meeting. I can ask for this sale. Don’t compare yourself with other people. We’re all on our own path. I think you need confidence.

The other thing I really like, and women are really good at this, and my men are too, asking questions, and being other-focused. That empathy, women do that naturally. I think that shows in sales, and men are very good at it too. That other person focus. I love teaching my students how to ask questions, and how to engage in a conversation. Listening, also listening. I always do a little question and ask students, how many of you ever had a writing class? Well, everyone’s been taught to write. Public speaking. Okay, we’ve all had that. How many of you have had a class in listening? The answer is zero. We say, listen to people, but we don’t tell them how to do it. We practice empathetic listening, and we practice listening skills. I’m telling you, I need practice. [Laughs] It is hard.

Gina Stracuzzi: Well, I would say that as a resource for your students, you might want to turn them on to the Sales Game Changers podcast. As Fred was saying, we do the Women in Sales one, but we do one on Creativity in Sales and Sales Mindset. He talks to a lot of VPs of Sales as well about their challenges and what they’re doing and what’s changing in the industry and all of that. It’s good listening material and a commercial voice, shall we say, in the industry that might be a good resource for them.

Jane Sojka: Absolutely. That would be great and they love podcasts, so that’s a great suggestion. I’m going to make sure I add that tomorrow to class.

Gina Stracuzzi: Well, we’ll send you a link too. When you teach basically the same course to men – and this brings us full circle and then this will be my last question and then we’ll ask for your last tip of advice. I was really struck by what you said at that conference, the She Sells Conference at the end that it’s so interesting how many women will respond to the same material. What do you see men walking away with from the course that perhaps is different than women?

Jane Sojka: I always have a couple of men in my Women in Sales course and I love them. I absolutely love them. Tell you what, this younger generation of men, they’re good. We’re in good hands. It’s going to be a great generation coming up. They learn what it feels like to be an out-group and they become our biggest allies. At the end of the class, they’re like, I had no idea this is what women go through. They know how to help us.

I think in a lot of cases, men will see something going on, they don’t like, it’s like the silent majority. They don’t like it, but they don’t know what to do. I teach them those skills. This is how you speak up. This is how you gather your allies. That’s one of the things that comes out of the men in the women’s class. In the traditional men’s class, when I started teaching the same material, and I was scared. Let me tell you, I was scared because I thought, oh, they already know how to do this. They didn’t.

What struck me was, whereas the women would come up to me in class or even in class and say, oh, this is just what I needed. The men would come to my office, close the door, and say, you changed my life or they would call me up on the phone where no one could hear and say, this made a difference. I know now. I didn’t give up. I’ve learned resilience. They don’t want to admit they may not know what’s going on, but they learn.

The other thing, I’m going to say a plug for my men, every time – because we have this stereotype that all men are threatened, but no. Men are not threatened by women. I asked my men, do you want a strong woman on your team or you want wimpy women on your team? Do you want a wimpy woman as a partner or do you want a strong woman as a partner? It’s like, well, yeah, we want strong women. We want to partner with strong women. We want strong women on the team. It becomes a win-win. I think that’s really exciting and that’s very different from where we were 60 years ago.

Gina Stracuzzi: Oh, gosh, yeah. My coming up in the man’s world, the selling stories are horrific but that’s for another session [laughs]. We always like to leave our audience with one tip, one piece of advice that they could even put into play today or start thinking about that could help them advance their careers.

Jane Sojka: Resilience is a teachable skill. You may not have learned it, but you can learn it now. Even if it’s as simple as failure is an event, not a person. Every time you make a mistake, you remind yourself, failure is an event. It is one thing, you are still a good person. Get over it, move on.

Gina Stracuzzi: Absolutely. Write that down, folks. Stick it on your computer. Failure is an event. Well, Jane, this has been an awesome conversation and so valuable, and I hope you’ll come back and I actually have some ideas percolating in my head which I’ll talk to you about afterwards. Thank you so very much for your time. Everyone, we’ll see you next week. Take care for now.

Jane Sojka: Thank you. It was my pleasure.

Transcribed by Mariana Badillo

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