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5 experts discuss what it takes to succeed as a top female leader in business

In Pipedrive’s 2020-2021 State of Sales report, an impressive majority of respondents (91%) said they were proud to say they work in sales. This is largely because they know their craft makes a true business impact.

But while women occupy almost half (49.8%) of all sales career roles (in the US), the same State of Sales statistics show they’re 19% less likely than men to be sales managers and 24% less likely to own a business.

Women in sales face a host of unique challenges, especially when it comes to climbing the sales career ladder in certain industries.

Research suggests, for example, that women who hit or exceed their sales quotas in tech sectors like SaaS and cloud software are paid less in commissions over time than their male counterparts. Moreover, despite a clear tendency for companies with gender-diverse leadership teams to outperform, less than one-third (30.6%) of sales managers are women.

In this roundtable discussion, five female sales and marketing leaders from a diverse range of companies provide insight into the challenges and positives of breaking the gender bias in business. They also share the seven traits of successful female leaders.

We spoke with:

  • Adriana Karpovicz, sales director at Stilingue

  • Beatriz Zogaib, co-founder, JustForYou, branding, marketing, communication specialist

  • Cecilia Inostroza, sales director at Terre Solaire

  • Isabelle Hermann, senior marketing manager at Savage X Fenty

  • Zahra Jiva, sales manager at Pipedrive (Lisbon)

Here’s what these successful sales and marketing professionals had to say about moving up in sales and becoming a more effective leader.


Table of Contents


The percentage of women in sales is on the rise

Despite some disparity in certain sales management roles (only 15% of managers in communications are women, for example, compared with 57% of those in the apparel industry), the overall percentage of women sales professionals has increased over the past decade.

Female sales leaders bring an innately valuable skill set to the arena. In B2B sales, for example, their talent for connecting, collaborating and shaping solutions is emerging in pivotal sales areas like customer success. Career data sources show, in fact, that 50-70% of customer success managers are women.

Q. How do you view female participation in the sales area? Have you seen the proportion of women increasing?

Adriana: Yes, I have, and I think it’s because companies are more concerned now about representation. Today, women are increasingly able to go behind the scenes and show their full potential in leadership chairs. Seeing more women in leadership has been very inspiring.

Beatriz: I’ve noticed that many marketing and sales leaders are now women. And I think more women are going into sales because they’ve discovered that they can turn problems into solutions. This is a paradigm shift.

Women are going into sales because they've discovered that they can turn problems into solutions.

Beatriz ZogaibCo-founder, JustForYou, branding, marketing, communication specialist


Q. Do you think women approach selling differently than men?

Beatriz: I think that women’s strategies are often more detailed. I also think a woman's creativity is a little more sensitive at times. And that can be a good thing because sometimes you have to try to think with the customer’s head and not just look at the data.

Selling is a form of relationship that’s established between two people to contract something. It’s often said that sensitivity is a typical female trait. But in reality, I think perceiving signals in a relationship is more a question of personal development and open-mindedness.

Cecilia InostrozaSales Director at Terre Solaire


Challenges still exist for women in sales

Increased involvement aside, many women continue to face challenges in sales that range from being treated differently than their male colleagues, to having to work harder to prove their professional abilities.

According to statistics from Gartner, 39% of women believe they don’t have the same opportunities for advancement as their male counterparts with the same skills and qualifications.

Q. What do you see as the main challenges women still face in sales?

Beatriz: I don’t know if it’s a question of gender or profile, but I think pressure is a big obstacle. If a person has a slightly more sensitive profile, it can definitely make things more complicated.

Q. Do you think that, as a woman, you have to prove yourself more as a professional?

Zahra: Being taken seriously is one of the hardest things as a woman. During in-person or live demonstrations, especially, I’ve had experiences where customers preferred to talk to my male colleagues. When I noticed this, I’d say to myself, ‘Okay, to overcome this, I need to be even more confident and comfortable around the product. I need to become the biggest expert on the product.’

Being taken seriously is one of the hardest things as a woman.

Zahra JivaSales Manager at Pipedrive


Creating a more supportive sales environment for women

Explicit discrimination in the workplace may be less common today, but many women still perceive an implicit or unconscious gender bias. The majority of both men (51%) and women (67%), in fact, agree that “underestimating their knowledge” is the top bias that women in sales face.

Fortunately, there’s much that existing leaders can do to create a more equitable, inclusive working environment where women are empowered to excel in sales.

Q. What actions can leaders take to ensure a more supportive working environment for women in sales?

I think every company should have committees made up of women. We have one here at Stilingue where we discuss a number of guidelines for the development of women and for helping them to follow a professional path. It makes women feel represented and it starts to generate a new vision of how they can grow. Sometimes women feel a leadership role is out of reach. Having a committee like this helps to change that perspective.

Adriana KarpoviczSales Director at Stillingue


Zahra: Transparency and keeping the door open is also extremely important, especially when it comes to talking about how a particular situation felt, or openly discussing an experience a team member had. Talking about these things helps because it lets us share learnings and strategies as we consider together how we want to deal with the situation.

Isabelle: I’m not really comfortable with the idea of quotas and positive discrimination in recruitment because there’s no such thing as having two strictly identical candidate profiles, except for their gender. But I know that we don’t live in a perfect world and I can understand that if people are not able to explore their own biases, this kind of quota can help to change the mindset gradually.


Succeeding as a female sales leader

Although challenges related to invisible advancement barriers (aka the glass ceiling) still pose a problem for women in sales, developing effective leadership skills can go a long way toward achieving success.

Successful sales leaders share the same motivation and collaboration skillsets, regardless of gender. Mastering the science and art of selling anything, cultivating the right attitude and taking advantage of support opportunities along the way are essential to succeeding in a leadership role.

Q. How can women in sales develop their leadership skills?

Cecilia: For people to follow you, you have to be clear in your ideas, your vision and where you want to go – even in the short term. Recently, I was told: “A good leader is like the windshield wipers on a car.” And I found that interesting because, indeed, when you can see clearly, you know where you are going and the road is more plainly marked.

Beatriz: I didn’t actually know I would be a good leader until I became one. But I think leadership is largely developed through behavior, through dialogue and communication is the key: knowing how to listen, having empathy and asking for whatever is needed.

Isabelle: Finding a mentor is also super-important for learning how to deal with certain challenges in your career, whether they involve navigating team conflict, managing promotion requests or dealing with changes of position. This person doesn’t have to be in the same company as you. It’s usually best, however, to find someone whose experience is equal to yours or who’s slightly more senior.

Zahra: I think the leadership development process is pretty equal for everyone. If you want to develop leadership skills, you not only have to practice active listening when it comes to your customers, but also with your peers. For me, it also meant reading, talking to other leaders, participating in meetings, raising my hand. Possibly, I went wrong in a lot of ways. But it’s by making mistakes that you learn.

Leadership is developed through behavior, through dialogue, is the key: knowing how to listen, having empathy, asking for whatever is needed.

Beatriz ZogaibCo-founder, JustForYou, Branding, Marketing, Communication specialist


Q. How did you navigate power structures early in your career versus later in your career when you had a more formal leadership role?

Adriana: Earlier on, I didn’t feel empowered to the point of questioning initiatives that didn’t make sense. Today I feel more in control and empowered to debate whatever’s necessary. That change in mindset was very big and as a turning point it was very important. I think as we behave differently, the way people see us changes a lot.

Isabelle: I know my management style has changed a lot because the very first time I managed someone, I wanted to “do well” and feel appreciated. As time went by, however, I realized this was less important. Now I still want to do well, but I prefer to be appreciated as a manager and not necessarily as a person.

Beatriz: It was all very different early on. I think at the beginning of our careers, we’re very afraid of making mistakes because we think it’s the end of the world. When we understand how much we learn from our mistakes, however – how much they can teach us – things begin to flow better. You prepare for the error and that brings more self-assurance.

My management style has clearly changed. I still want to do well, but I prefer to be appreciated as a manager and not necessarily as a person.

Isabelle HermannSenior Marketing Manager at Savage X Fenty


Q. What helped you the most in your career? What is the main reason for your success?

Zahra: What helped me the most were the managers that I had. Learning from these mentors was really important and the lesson I took away was this: Trust in yourself, because you know what you are saying. Don’t back down if you really believe in what you’re saying. Don’t back down just because others will probably challenge you and what you’re saying. Also, keep your ideas consistent, structured and organized.

Trust in yourself, because you know what you are saying. Don’t back down if you really believe in what you’re saying. Don’t back down just because others will probably challenge you and what you’re saying. Also, keep your ideas consistent, structured and organized.

Zahra JivaSales Manager at Pipedrive


Key takeaways for moving up as a woman in sales

Whether a career in sales is planned or incidental, opportunities for women aspiring to a sales management position are more promising than ever.

According to Adriana, “there is a disruption in the market. We have women in leadership chairs in technology areas; I have friends who work in the financial market. We are in a moment of paradigm shift.”

Q. What are some mistakes you made along the way and what would you do differently today?

Zahra: As far as customers go, I possibly could have done more to look at the big picture, ask the right questions, provide better follow-up or feedback on what they could expect. When I was leading my first team, I also made the mistake of trying to find a process that fit every market, which simply doesn’t work. I had to learn to rearrange and adapt to the different markets I was working with.

Adriana: In my sales career, I have learned many things in practice, literature and through experience and mentorship from other people in the area, but we certainly need to evolve the market a lot, as well as specialized sales training. When I was younger, I didn't think about being a sales specialist. There was a lack of courses aimed at sales and no sales courses in higher education. I have a degree in Marketing and am currently a sales director at a MarTech business.

We certainly need to evolve the market a lot, as well as specialized sales training

Adriana KarpoviczSales Director at Stilingue


Q. If you could go back in time, what advice would you give your 25-year-old self?

Cecilia: I don’t regret any of my choices, but I would advise myself to believe in “me” more. I tended to take the easy way out because I saw that I had skills, but I didn’t have enough confidence. With more confidence, I could have moved forward faster. I would tell myself to dare to do things right away; to dare to take on more responsibility.

Adriana: The person I was at 25 wanted to take care of everything: health, family, work. It was very challenging. And I think what I would have done differently would be to look to other women for inspiration and find out what they did to get where they are, so I could become better prepared to move forward faster.

Isabelle: My advice would be to trust the process and not ask yourself too many questions. Trust yourself, trust your abilities, trust the path you’re taking and don’t just think about the final outcome, because nothing in life is fixed… And also, buy Bitcoins!

Zahra: Be patient, don’t worry and don’t stress so much about your customer relationships because, at the end of the day, you’re providing a service that either benefits them or doesn’t. Don’t push, do practice active listening and try to really understand where the customer is coming from and what they’re looking for. Most of all, share with your manager. Talk to them and rely on them to help you achieve the goals you’ve set for yourself.

I don’t regret any of my choices, but I would advise myself to believe in “me” more.

Cecilia InostrozaSales Director at Terre Solaire


7 traits of successful female leaders

These are the seven traits that our experts believe will help businesswomen find success:

  1. Play to your strengths: “Women are going into sales because they’ve discovered that they can turn problems into solutions.”

  2. Be confident and comfortable in your role: “I’ve had experiences where customers preferred to talk to my male colleagues. When I noticed this, I’d say to myself, ‘Okay, to overcome this, I need to be even more confident and comfortable around the product. I need to become the biggest expert on the product.’”

  3. Become the biggest expert in your field

  4. Join or start up a committee for women at your organization: “I think every company should have committees made up of women.”

  5. Have a clear vision that you can communicate: “For people to follow you, you have to be clear in your ideas, your vision and where you want to go – even in the short term.”

  6. Listen, discuss and have empathy: “Leadership is developed through behavior, through dialogue, is the key: knowing how to listen, having empathy, asking for whatever is needed.”

  7. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes: “When we understand how much we learn from our mistakes, however – how much they can teach us – things begin to flow better.”


Final thoughts

Women in sales face a distinct set of challenges. Not only do persisting stereotypes and unconscious bias make it difficult for some women to advance in a sales career, they’re also apt to be less than fairly compensated when they do.

The good news is that sales leaders and the businesses they work for can take a number of steps to make their recruitment and work practices more equitable.

These include:

By developing fair pay scenarios and providing greater opportunities for sales career growth, organizations can attract, support and empower more female sales leaders while benefiting from the hugely positive impact of women in sales.

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