Research spotlight: can selling change the salesperson?

Is there a link between sales employment and gender empowerment? We caught up with Dr. Iris Steenkamp to discover the answer


Is there a link between sales employment and gender empowerment? Assistant Professor at Bocconi University and London Business School PhD alumna Dr. Iris Steenkamp (PhD, 2022) answers our questions on the ongoing Wheeler Institute for Business and Development research project: Can selling change the salesperson? 

The paper is co-authored by Rajesh Chandy (Academic Director of the Wheeler Institute for Business and Development, Professor of Marketing at London Business School, Tony and Maureen Wheeler Chair in Entrepreneurship) and Om Narasimhan (Professor of Marketing at London School of Economics and Political Science).

What prompted the project?

“We were working in India with Dharma Life, an NGO founded by Gaurav Mehta (MBA, 2010), who were employing local women to become salespeople,” explains Iris. “They observed that these jobs transformed their characters and their roles within rural communities. And it really started probing the question, are there non-monetary aspects of sales employment that can lead to gender empowerment?

Gender empowerment is defined in two ways:

  • Psychological empowerment: improving leadership traits such as confidence, extroversion, and persuasion.
  • Behavioural empowerment: taking on new leadership roles within the community.

In 2019, we set up a field experiment to measure the impact of sales employment on gender empowerment.”


What did the study look like?

“We recruited 1,048 women and randomly assigned them to either sales employment, placebo employment or no employment. This allowed us to causally identify the effects of different types of employment on these measurable categories of empowerment. Our argument was that sales employment would lead to the greatest levels of gender empowerment because of its three core elements:

  • Exposure: working out of the house rather than within it.
  • Interaction: meeting more people from diverse backgrounds, interacting with all levels of a company.
  • Persuasion: convincing a person to purchase a product or adopt a behaviour, which can lead to a tangible confidence boost when successful.

We removed these three elements from the placebo employment. Rather than going out and selling products such as female hygiene packs, the placebo group reviewed products from their homes. This design allowed us to maintain participants’ levels of product familiarity, training, financial incentives, and management structure while controlling for exposure, interaction, and persuasion between the groups.”

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"The women we are studying are very strong and very motivated."


How do you measure psychological and behavioural changes?

“Self-reported data poses several challenges around self-representation bias, particularly in employment and development settings. To overcome this, we introduced a methodological innovation from psychological literature to the field of marketing in a development context.

“We ask women to attend video interviews in a standardised setting, then record their responses to specific questions and scenarios in which they are asked to demonstrate community leadership characteristics and behaviours. For instance, we presented a group of women in Uttar Pradesh with a scenario in which a neighbour would like to marry off an under-age child, and measure two key self-coders. First, we code their body language, which has a high correlation with personality traits. A lot of literature suggests that strangers can make 78% accurate judgments on a person’s personality within 10 seconds of meeting them based purely on body language. Second, we code the verbal content of their speech. 

“There are always a minimum of three raters. Raters rank the confidence, extroversion and persuasion exhibited in each clip, based on a range of measurables that relate to body language and verbal content. We have to see evidence of psychological and behavioural empowerment in both.

“To measure leadership within a community beyond survey data we offer all of the groups an opportunity to organise a community event in which they highlight the role of daughters. We ask these women if they are willing to organise the event, and assess the extent to which they are able to mobilise other people to attempt it. These include men and key opinion leaders in the village. This is an objective measure of the woman’s ability to mobilise and influence other people within her community.”


How has this study, and the sales job provided by Dharma Life, affected these women on personal levels?

“The women we are studying are very strong and very motivated. When they talk about themselves now, having worked with Dharma Life as a salesperson for a while, they say things such as: ‘Before, I would not have dared to talk to you. I wouldn’t have been able to look you in the eyes; but look at me now.’ 

“They stand strongly and speak up with confidence when talking to all sorts of people, including Rajesh Chandy (Professor of Marketing at London Business School, and Academic Co-Director of the Wheeler Institute for Business and Development), myself, and other foreigners. Many of them have told us that now, the people in their community know them by their name, not solely by their husband’s. They talk about a new purpose and identity within their community, and how fulfilled they feel on both personal and community levels. 

“Many use the word ‘pehchaan’, a Hindi word that describes the status of being a known, respected, and acknowledged person within a society. It is important to recognise that their role in their households is also changing as they bring in income. People appreciate their work, and they feel more confident about themselves.”


What further research might this study prompt?

“We are just looking at one type of employment, so there are other variations that could be done. A follow up study could also look at additional elements of employment that lead to empowerment and leadership outcomes,” Iris concludes.

The Wheeler Institute for Business and Development research project ‘Can selling change the salesperson?’ is conducted in collaboration with DL Labs. We would like to extend our thanks to the Dharma Life team for their continued support.


A special thanks goes to Rajeev Ranjan, Pramod Shukla, Renu Singh, Katyayani Verma, Krishna Pandey, Seeram Chandu, Somil Nandan, and Sonali Das for their hard work and commitment to the study.

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