Gender Inequality and Code Switching in Sales, with NAWSP President Cynthia Barnes

Cynthia Barnes is the Founder and CEO of the National Association of Women Sales Professionals, the only organization in the U S dedicated to helping women sales professionals reach the top 1% in their sales career.  Today she talks about her why, gender inequality in sales, code switching, the hustle, and making sure to reward yourself.

Cynthia Barnes NAWSP Diversity Beyond the Checkbox Podcast

Jackie Ferguson: Hello, and welcome to the Diversity Beyond the Checkbox Podcast. I’m your host. Jackie Ferguson Certified Diversity Executive, writer, and multicultural marketing consultant. On this podcast, we share diverse perspectives from leaders in their industries, explore diversity, equity and inclusion concepts, and challenge our own assumptions and perspectives to take diversity beyond the checkbox.

Before we introduce today’s guest, for more insights and resources related to diversity and inclusion, including our course, also titled Diversity Beyond the Checkbox, visit

Jackie Ferguson: I’m so pleased to have with us today, Cynthia Barnes. Cynthia, a former top 1% sales person, is the Founder and CEO of the National Association of Women Sales Professionals. The only organization in the U S dedicated to helping women sales professionals reach the top 1%.

Cynthia is recognized as a LinkedIn top sales influencer having appeared in over 250 major media outlets around the nation, including the Wall Street Journal.

Cynthia is a keynote speaker with brands, such as Toyota, Michelin, and many more. Cynthia, thank you so much for joining us today.

Cynthia Barnes: Thank you so much for having me. How are you?

Jackie Ferguson: Wonderful. I hope if you are.

Cynthia Barnes: I am, I am.

Jackie Ferguson: Fantastic. Cynthia, will you share with our listeners a bit about your background and how you got started in sales?

Cynthia Barnes: Sure. Like most professionals, we don’t start out wanting to go into sales. I fell into sales by accident. I started with a company which was a for profit university and they told me that I would be an enrollment counselor.

So that was my first sales job, if you will. And from there I went on the pharmaceutical sales, recruiting, high-end skincare. And then my last corporate role was as a logistics account executive out in Portland, Oregon.

Jackie Ferguson: Wonderful. And then how did you get into, being the top 1% in sales? How do you reach that level?

Cynthia Barnes: It takes laser-focus, clear definition of your why. And a lot, a lot of hard work. But if I had to say one thing, it would be asking yourself, well, why not me? If other people can be in the top 1%, why can’t I be in the top 1% too?

Jackie Ferguson: Amazing. And that had to be especially hard as an African American woman in a male dominated industry. Can you talk about that a little bit and how you navigated that?

Cynthia Barnes: Sure. Like a lot of African American women, we are the only one on a team.  For African American men too, especially in sales where only 39% of sales professionals are women. So being a woman, a black woman in sales, it’s almost like you have a double whammy that also forces you to recognize the fact that you have to do things a little differently, work a little harder, because the playing field is not level.

Jackie Ferguson: And tell us about the National Association of Women Sales Professionals. What’s its mission. What resources do you provide to members?

Cynthia Barnes: Yes. NAWSP is a member base of about 15,000 women who sell B2B services in male dominated industries.

And our goal is to provide our members and women in sales with the network and training created by women for women to reach the top 1%. So some of the things that we offer are masterclasses. We offer an online community exclusively for our members. We have webinars with subject matter experts and thought leaders and surveys and input relative to the status and the state of women in sales in the United States.

Jackie Ferguson: Awesome. And at what level in sales, can you join an organization like yours?

Cynthia Barnes: You can join from the very beginning. So we have sales professionals, women sales professionals from BDRs and SDRs all the way up to Chief Revenue Officers and everyone in between.

There’s something for everyone at NAWSP.

Jackie Ferguson: Perfect. And Cynthia, can you tell us with the focus that you’ve had to have to reach your level of success. Where does that come from in your background?

Cynthia Barnes: Ah, I had parents who knew that anything was possible if I was willing to put forth the effort and the hard work to achieve it.

So my father was a surgeon in the Air Force and he sat me down when I was about six years old and he said, Cyn Mae, cause you know, everybody in the South is middle named Mae. He said to me, Cyn Mae, I’ve got some news for you. And I want you to take this seriously. And I knew that when my father was speaking in that tone, he was serious.

So he grew up in the Jim Crow South. Segregation. So keep in mind what I’m about to tell you is through his lens of how he viewed things growing up in the segregated South of Georgia. So he sits me down and he says, Cyn Mae, you have two strikes against you. You are a black girl. And I said, yes, I know daddy.

And he said, what that means for you is for the rest of your life you’re going to have to do things twice as hard to get half as recognized. Now, remember, this is his lens that he’s looking through. So I said, okay. Yes, daddy. And then he said, while I’m at it, I guess he had more to say while he was on his soap box, he said there are three types of people in the world.

Those who make things happen, those who wait for things to happen. And those who wonder what the hell happened. He said, so basically what I’m trying to say to you is work really hard, harder than anybody else, and make things happen. So that’s where it came from. From age six.

Jackie Ferguson: That’s amazing. It’s funny, Cynthia. I had the same conversation with my grandfather, literally said the exact same thing. You have two strikes against you and you’ve got to work harder than anybody else. A lot of us have had that sit down conversation with our parents or grandparents. The playing field is not level.

Cynthia Barnes: It is not, it is not, but those of us who know better, we don’t use that as an excuse. It’s just our reality.

Jackie Ferguson: That’s right. Do you often find that people use lack of privilege as an excuse? Or how do you navigate being able to get to that level with the lack of natural privilege that a white male would walk in the door with, that you would have to earn?

Cynthia Barnes: That’s interesting you should ask that. I like to think of it as assimilation, being a master at assimilation and being a master at knowing who your decision makers are and knowing how to influence them. So I could easily say, well, I’m not a white man, so therefore I can never succeed in sales. Or I say, I’m not a white man, how do I succeed in sales, on a playing field that doesn’t look like me? And I was up for the challenge.

Jackie Ferguson: That’s amazing.

Cynthia Barnes: Why not me?

Jackie Ferguson: Yes. Why not me? That’s something that we all need to think about as we navigate our individual paths. Why not me?

Cynthia Barnes: Exactly.

Jackie Ferguson: Cynthia how do you become a LinkedIn top sales influencer?

Cynthia Barnes: LinkedIn comes up with a yearly or an annual, list of the top 15 sales professionals. And I was fortunate to be chosen for the 2020 list. I don’t know what the criteria were. All I know is that I was just grateful and honored to be on the list with such excellent, awesome people.

Jackie Ferguson: And then how do you remain authentic in a male dominated industry? And speaking with other women sales professionals, they talk about a need to code switch to succeed. Let’s talk about that a little.

Cynthia Barnes: I think we’ve all done that. I think we’ve all left our selves at the door so that we can assimilate, as they used to say,  when in Rome, do like the Romans. And I still think that a lot of us have to code switch because you want your decision makers to feel comfortable. So for African Americans, it’s like putting on a shell if you will. Going in making sure that you speak well, that you, use the right verbiage, wear the right clothing. So that your prospect, so that your buyer, so that your decision maker feels there’s more in common with you. Not necessarily fair. Not necessarily right, but it is what it is. And Barack Obama, president Barack Obama is a master at this. If you watch some of his films and  see his pictures, he actually mirrors the person that he’s talking to. So the body language is there. He mirrors the speech patterns and things like that.

And it’s amazing when you take that time to make your prospect, buyer influencer, decision-maker feel at ease, they are more likely to come to your side of thinking.

Jackie Ferguson: That makes sense. You wrote an article about how being racially bullied made you a better sales person. Will you share that story with us?

Cynthia Barnes: Yes. I grew up in a sundown town. And for those of you that are not familiar with sundown towns, they have signs at the outskirts as you enter the town that say no blacks out past sundown. So, I grew up in this town, 2,500 people. I used to ask my parents, why are we here? There’s no black families here except us.

And their answer was always it’s the best educational system in the state. And we want you to have as many opportunities and advantages as possible. That all came at a price socially, because I was racially bullied every single day, called the N word and asked about watermelon and fried chicken and it was a lot for a kid to digest. But when you don’t know any differently, you kind of just rise to the experience. I say all that to say I was indoctrinated by stress, and I always thought if I could, as a middle schooler, get bullied by these 6’3″ white kids and survive that, I can survive anything.

So when a prospect tells me no, I just let it roll off my back. When someone hangs up on me, I just let it roll off my back, which doesn’t happen as much anymore. But a lot of sales professionals have fear of picking up the phone. They have fear of rejection. My past and how strong I had to be as a kid coming up almost makes me fearless.

Jackie Ferguson: Hmm. Wow.

Cynthia Barnes: Yeah,

Jackie Ferguson: That is so true. A lot of times in sales, it’s, it’s scary. You don’t want to take the nose and you don’t want to be rejected, but it’s part of the process, isn’t it?

Cynthia Barnes: Yes, it is. It is. Sales is the only job where you wake up every single day, you get told no nine out of 10 times and you come back the next day to do it over again.

It’s almost the definition of insanity, but we do it every single day.

Jackie Ferguson: That’s right. Tell me, Cynthia, what was so amazing about sales? Why did you do that difficult job for so long?

Cynthia Barnes: Oh the adrenaline rush. The daily adrenaline rush of, okay, here’s my goal. I want to make 125 calls. Can I get to 125? I want to set five appointments.

So it’s a very goal oriented type of career. And there are those of us that thrive on setting goals and achieving goals and setting another goal and getting better and better and better. It’s a rush.

Jackie Ferguson: Awesome. Can you share with us some of your current goals?

Cynthia Barnes: Yes. 300,000 NAWSP members by 2025.  That is a huge goal for us. And, that’s the big one that we’re working on. That’s the big one.

Jackie Ferguson: Amazing. What are some of the advantages that women have in sales?

Cynthia Barnes: Ah, we are masters at developing relationships. We are excellent time managers. Take any woman who has kids, and she’s got to manage Donnie’s soccer practice and Tabitha’s ballet recitals and practices and all these different things.

Plus she manages work. Plus she manages her wine outings with her girlfriends and her husband’s schedule and his extracurricular activities. So women, we can handle multiple responsibilities like it’s nothing. And we’re empathetic with our buyers. We seek first to understand then be understood.

There are so many things that women inherently do well, and I believe that when we sell authentically and we tap into what we do naturally, we can get to the top 1% easier.

Jackie Ferguson: Fantastic. You call vulnerability an essential gift in sales. Can you talk about that?

Cynthia Barnes: Yes. Vulnerability is extremely emotional, if you will.

And a lot of women are told, don’t be emotional at work. I challenge that and say, be passionate. It’s just a different word. Bring that emotion, bring that vulnerability to the selling process and you will appear more human. No one wants to be approached with a bravado type of experience. Be vulnerable and say, Hey, you know, this may not be the right product or service for you Mr. Prospect, let me help you find the one that is.

Jackie Ferguson: That’s a great thing to think about because a lot of times people associate vulnerability as negative.

Cynthia Barnes: They do.

Jackie Ferguson: In our course, Diversity Beyond the Checkbox, we talk about the necessity of understanding inclusive language in communication as the world becomes more diverse.

Your decision maker isn’t one demographic anymore. Can we talk about how increased diversity changes sales strategy?

Cynthia Barnes: Diversity is a wonderful thing. Inclusion is something totally different. So when we talk about diversity in the sales proces s , there’s two different ways to think about that.

There’s diversity from the buyer standpoint of view, meaning that he may not get a 24 year old white guy selling to him. So our buyers need to be educated on diversity from that standpoint. Our sales professionals need to realize that not everyone is going to think like you.

And how do you go into the back woods of Arkansas? You walk into an office of your buyer. There’s a Confederate flag on the walk and a Miss July poster or a calendar in the corner. So you still have to show up, present well, and not let emotion dictate your reactions, even though it is a factor. And I think that in 2020, those emotions are at a heightened level, especially when you are African American or you are of a, a racial minority and you’re walking into a majority office with the Confederate flag, could be scary for anybody. But that is a reality.

Jackie Ferguson: Yes. Cynthia, what insights can you provide for the one of a few in any industry to be successful?

Cynthia Barnes: Connect with those who look like you, who act like you. We have the same challenges as you, even though you are the only one in that industry, there are others that are outside of that industry to connect to, because there are plenty of us who are the only one, but find your tribe. That’s one of the reasons we created NAWSP was because there were tons of women who were the only one on their team.

I’m the only black, I’m the only woman. I’m the only Asian.  We have the community so that you don’t have to feel like you’re the only one all the time. Bounce ideas off of us. Get advice. Don’t get advice. Vent.

Jackie Ferguson: Yeah. That makes sense. You know, a lot of times we don’t get the same opportunity for mentorship as others when we’re the only one.

Cynthia Barnes: Yes.

Jackie Ferguson: So having relationships and having opportunities to connect with other people in your industry that can help you along your journey is so important.

Cynthia can you tell us what performance bias is?

Cynthia Barnes: Yes, performance bias can look like a number of things. The top one that comes to mind is, I’ll tell a story.

I was selling pharmaceuticals in West Detroit, Michigan, and our drugs were, high-end just brand new. So there was no, there was no generic. So the only people that could afford that medication were those that had private insurance. So being in West Detroit, the majority of my doctors saw, public health insured patients that did not pay for the drug that I was trying to get written by those doctors.

So I went to my boss and I said, Hey, my doctors can’t write this script for their patient population because their insurance doesn’t cover it. And the copay for non-insured is too expensive. And he said, I understand that. And I said, okay so in the suburbs where the demographic is different and the patients have private insurance top notch, those reps are doing very, very well.

And I am not doing well. Yet we’re still held to the same performance standards. So why is that? If the playing field is not level, if all things are not equal, then we can’t in good conscience hold reps to the same standard when everything is not equal.

Jackie Ferguson: And Cynthia, how do you have those difficult conversations with your manager? How do you approach those when there are inequities?

Cynthia Barnes: I’m always an advocate for being assertive. So you can either be passive. You can be passive aggressive. You can be aggressive. Or you can be assertive. And a lot of women are afraid to be assertive for fear that they will be labeled aggressive.

I have a formula of I-statements asking for behavior changes or thoughts or things like that. And that formula is to talk about how it makes me feel, the reason why it makes me feel that way. Here’s what I expect or here’s what I request. And then ask for some buy in. And that seems to work very well for me.

Jackie Ferguson: How has COVID-19 changed the sales industry?

Cynthia Barnes: Ah, it has made sales professionals even more valuable, even more valuable, the good ones, the good ones. Those that show up with empathy. Those that show up and say, I understand we’re in turbulent times right now.

I’m going to walk you through this process. Those that understand that their buyer can Google almost everything. So remember that your customers and buyers are paying you for what they can’t Google.

Jackie Ferguson: That’s a very interesting concept because you’re right. In any industry, with any product or service there is research done.

Cynthia Barnes: Yes. Yes. Think about it. Let’s say that you’re trying to lose weight and you Google, how to lose weight. You will get 25,000 trillion billion hits.  So for someone who is struggling to lose weight, all of that information is overkill because you don’t know, should I go on Keto or Atkins or high fat, or low fat or high protein, low protein.

There are too many different options out there. If someone is serious about losing weight, they will pay extra, through the nose, someone to tell them, based upon your situation, here’s what’s going to work for you. And as a sales professional, that’s what our prospects and buyers want is help me solve my issue.  And if you can do that, I will give you my money.

Jackie Ferguson: Good advice. And Cynthia, how has your mentorship, through your organization helped individual women in sales? Can you share a story or two?

Cynthia Barnes: Yes. So we just ran a series on, upping or leveling up your LinkedIn profile. And one of our members just updated hers based upon the masterclass that we taught. And she reached out to someone the very next day and got a contract that same day, just based upon their LinkedIn profile. Our members average 411% year over year growth. So our members are making money.

Jackie Ferguson: Wow. And can you share with us some of the insights that you share with your members, a top two or three tips for sales?

Cynthia Barnes: We talk a lot about using our time wisely. We talk about overcoming imposter syndrome, the inner critic. We talk a lot about diversity. How to be that voice, using your voice, influence and power to be the change that we want to see. So it’s professional development, it’s sales training, it’s also motivation and community.

Jackie Ferguson: And is there a particular member that has been inspiring to you, and a story that you’d like to share about that?

Cynthia Barnes: I would have to say April Yearby, she is the Vice President of the Leavitt Group and she’s jumped in with both feet. She’s been motivational to others. So she gives as much as she gets. And she is just amazing. Amazing. Anybody asks a question, she’s right there. She’s coachable and she’s wonderful.

Jackie Ferguson: That’s great. And Cynthia, what one or two books do you recommend someone read that is entering into the sales profession?

Cynthia Barnes: I would recommend, Heart and Sell by Shari Levitin and Presence by Amy Cuddy.

Jackie Ferguson: Okay. Tell a little about those books and why you recommend those.

Cynthia Barnes: Yes. Heart and Sell by Sherry. Levintin talks more about the emotional connection that you have with your prospects and your buyers. Those are important because those are women’s inherent strengths. Presence by Amy Cuddy talks about using brain science to being, to bring your best self to crucial moments.

Sales is high pressure. When you have executive presence, you show up as the person that they want to do business with.

Jackie Ferguson: Awesome. And then in a high pressure profession, how do you recommend that sales professionals decompress and relax?

Cynthia Barnes: Find something that brings you joy, that you can relax and do on a consistent basis and that you look forward to, I’m not talking about grabbing a glass of wine every night. I’m talking about what is it that you can reward yourself with that’s also fun, and brings you joy and then do that every day and say, this is my reward for a job well done. If I set out to make 125 calls and I hit it, then my reward is this and make sure it’s fun.

Jackie Ferguson: Awesome. Can you share your personal reward for yourself?

Cynthia Barnes: Yes. I have several, so I bike every day and the first time I got this brand new bike, a couple of weeks ago, I fell off the bike.

Jackie Ferguson: Oh my goodness.

Cynthia Barnes: Yes. Yes. So my reward for getting on the bike every single day, even though I’m still scared is I get to treat myself to either a manicure or pedicure or some type of self care and I have a list of things that I do. So I do something every day that scares me. And right now it’s that bike.

Jackie Ferguson: I love that, you know, it’s important for us to do things that scare us.

Cynthia Barnes: Yes.

Jackie Ferguson: That’s I think how we’re able to grow i n our careers and our lives and  being outside our comfort zone is so important to growth.

Cynthia Barnes: Yes. Yes.

Jackie Ferguson: Tell us something about you that not a lot of people know.

Cynthia Barnes: Hmm. About 10 years ago, I was involved in a Vietnamese gang hit.

Jackie Ferguson: Oh my gosh.

Cynthia Barnes: Yes. It’s a long story, but let’s just say that there was some people that came over from Vietnam. And they were trying to collect money from the salon owner that where I was getting my nails done and people, it came to blows, the police were called and it, yeah, it was, it was, it was ugly. It was ugly.

Jackie Ferguson: What happened? Where you in the pedicure chair?

Cynthia Barnes: I was in the manicure chair. And, you know, there’s some people that, you know, there’s two options, fight or flight, and they say, you really don’t know what type of person you are until you get in that situation.

Well, suffice it to say I’m a flighter, I picked up my bag and my phone and I was gone out the back door as soon as the chair started flying. I was not sticking around.

Jackie Ferguson: That is crazy. Unexpected for sure when you’re getting your manicure.

Cynthia Barnes: Heck yeah.

Jackie Ferguson: Oh, my goodness.

Cynthia, what would you like to leave our listeners with today?

Cynthia Barnes: I’d like to tell a story if I may.

Jackie Ferguson: Absolutely.

Cynthia Barnes: Okay. So in Africa they have safaris and the Europeans and the Americans always come to the Safari and they’re assigned a tour guide. And normally it’s for tour guides and for people in the Jeep and they break you up into quadrants.

They break up the desert into the Northeast, Southeast, Northwest, Southwest quadrant. And you get in your Jeep with your tour guide and they have a walkie talkie. You go out to your respective quadrant and about seven o’clock in the morning when the sun is starting to rise, somebody from the Southwest quadrant will say, Hey. And he’s talking to all the other three quadrants.

We’ve got a herd of Buffalo down here. So everybody from the other three quadrants will hop into their Jeeps and hightail it down to the Southwest quadrant. And by the time you get there, the animals are gone. So you go back to your respective quadrants and someone from the Northeast quadrant a couple of hours later will say, Hey, we’ve got a herd of zebra up here.

And you hightail it up there. By the time you get to the Northeast quadrant, all the zebra are gone. This happens all day long chasing animals and no animals to be found. I don’t understand it, but apparently it’s, thrill. So that night when the sun is starting to set and you’re having dinner in this electric fence enclosed area with your maitre D and your linen tablecloths and the sun is starting to set and you see movement over the corner of your eye, and you look really closely and you see that it’s zebra. A lot of them. And so you tap your tour guide on the elbow and you say, Hey, look, there’s zebra. And he kind of plays it off like, yeah, yeah, yeah. There’s zebra.

So you’re eating another salad and you look over the corner of your eye and it’s even more dark and you see antelope. And you say weren’t those antelope that we were chasing earlier today? And he says, yeah. So it dawns on you that you could have stayed the entire day in your hut, then come out to dinner and seen all the animals that you were chasing all day.

So you say to your tour guide, why are the animals coming over here? And he says, Oh, that’s the only watering hole for miles. So the moral of the story is, be something so valuable that people have to come to you to get what they want. On the Safari. If you would just stayed in your hut next to the watering hole, you would have seen all the animals because they had no choice but to come to the closest watering hole.

So if I had something to leave with everybody, it would be, be the water. Don’t chase buyers. Don’t chase customers. Provide value, but be the water and they will come to you.

Jackie Ferguson: Wow. Thank you so much. What an amazing way to end. Cynthia, thank you for sharing your story and insights with us. You can learn more about Cynthia by visiting Thank you so much.

Cynthia Barnes: My pleasure. Thank you.


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