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Women in sales: It’s time to smash clichés (including real tips from female sales leaders)

Over the past 15 years, the percentage of women working in sales careers has steadily risen. Yet, studies show that women that hit or exceed their sales quotas are paid less in commissions over time than men.

The gender pay gap is not unique to the sales industry, but in a pay-per-performance role, it’s especially interesting to see. Given that recent analysis backs up the claim that organizations with more gender diversity outperform their less diverse competitors, this could be the optimal time to pick a career in sales as a woman.

In this article, we’ll explore challenging working situations that women in sales face (based on a historical gender imbalance in the industry), how the modern climate is changing for the better and how businesses can benefit from having a more gender-diverse sales organization.

We’ll also share some real-world insights from women in various sales fields. Hear about the female experience from five top sales and marketing experts:

  • Adriana Karpovicz, Sales Director at Stilingue

  • Beatriz Zogaib, Co-founder of JustForYou, branding, marketing and communication specialist

  • Cecilia Inostroza, Sales Director at Terre Solaire

  • Isabelle Hermann, Senior Marketing Manager at Savage X Fenty

  • Zahra Jiva, Sales Manager at Pipedrive

Table of contents

The state of women in sales careers

As the study linked above shows, women-led teams perform better, even though female sales managers only make up 26% of the industry, while women make up 49% of sales reps.

The low proportion of female sales managers suggests that climbing to the top of the ladder as a woman in sales isn’t without its challenges. These barriers can be seen most clearly in how women are represented in different fields.

We need to look at the root of the problem because, in my opinion, it’s a systemic one that starts in childhood. For example, if we have trouble recruiting in the scientific fields, it’s because at the age of seven or eight, women start to think that they are not good at math and a large majority of them will not continue their education in these fields.

Isabelle HermannSenior Marketing Manager at Savage X Fenty

How many women work in sales?

The latest figures from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics show that women occupy 48.7% of the overall careers in sales and related occupations.

However, representation varies drastically between different industries. For instance, cashiers are included in this category, where women make up 73.1% of the workforce. They’re also more likely to be employed in a B2C sales role, such as a travel agent (where 79.5% of the workforce are women).

When you look at B2B sales roles in other sectors, it’s a different story. Women make up 30.5% of the sales reps working in wholesale and manufacturing. Only 22.8% of sales agents in securities, commodities and financial services are female.

Other industries also see a large disparity in representation. Parts sales, where reps are responsible for selling mechanical parts and other hardware, is the most under-represented sector for women, with just 16% of the positions held by the gender.

Representation in sales management and leadership

A lack of female representation is particularly evident in sales management roles. For example, the U.S. Bureau of Labor reported that only 30.9% of sales managers are women (compared to 60.7% of marketing managers). However, this isn’t due to a lack of ambition.

We still have barriers that hamper the rise of women in the labor market and resistance to women in leadership. My team is quite diverse, but in the past I've been in situations where I was interrupted when speaking, for example, but I kept going, even if I felt that I needed to go the extra mile to get respect from the team. There is a great responsibility for women in leadership roles, to take this diversity agenda to the boards of companies and make the change happen.

Adriana KarpoviczDirector of Sales at Stilingue

Lucidchart’s survey found a similar disparity in sales management roles. While 57% of sales managers in the apparel sector are women, this falls to 15% in communication.

Customer Success Managers (CSMs), another customer-facing role where people focus on retention and loyalty, finding opportunities to upsell and cross-sell, are seeing more equal numbers of men and women (and in some cases as high as 70% women). Building relationships is a valuable skill for all sales professionals, not just for CSMs.

Selling has always motivated me. I think if you ask my parents, they’ll tell you that I’ve always loved human relations, arguing and convincing. It was probably in me for a long time. I went to a technical school because I like to understand how things work, but I especially like to understand so I can explain them rather than make them.

Cecilia InostrozaSales Director at Terre Solaire

While there are some sales niches where women are better represented in management and executive roles, they still make up less than one-third of sales leaders overall. With both genders holding roughly equal entry-level sales positions, this indicates challenges in career progression and retention of high-performing women.

Challenges women face in a sales career

Sales is a tough career before you even take a lack of female representation into account.

Sales is not an easy department. You really have to believe in the product that you are selling. There’s a lot of aspects to consider here: The product, whether you believe in it, your age, your gender, the customers. Your productivity alone won’t be a guarantee for success.

Zahra JivaSales Manager at Pipedrive

Beyond representation and career challenges, women in sales are also up against a historical gender imbalance.

Gender biases in sales

In many cases, sales leaders think the gender diversity of their sales teams is far better than the numbers reflect. Gartner reported 84% of CSOs are satisfied with the gender diversity of their teams, whereas over 50% of sales professionals believe their organizations struggle to hire women in sales.

With 39% of women feeling like they don’t have the same advancement opportunities as males with the same skills and qualifications, it’s evident that bias still exists in the industry.

Biases create real obstacles for women in sales, both when applying for a sales role and when attempting to progress in their careers.

According to Managing Vice President at Gartner, Cristina Gomez:

“As long as these perceptions remain, it will be hard for senior leaders to identify how their organizations’ norms and culture need to change to attract high-performing female candidates and retain female sales leaders.”

Lucidchart found that 67% of women in sales felt their knowledge was underestimated at some point. Many women also experienced other common biases, including being seen as too weak and having their negotiating skills underestimated. That experience has been felt by women in leadership...

We still have barriers that hamper the rise of women in the labor market and resistance to women in leadership. My team is quite diverse, but in the past I've been in situations where I was interrupted when speaking, for example, but I kept going, even if I felt that I needed to go the extra mile to get respect from the team. There is a great responsibility for women in leadership roles, to take this diversity agenda to the boards of companies and make the change happen.

Adriana KarpoviczSales Director at Stilingue

… As well as by women trying to win new business.

Especially during demonstrations, I’ve had moments when I experienced that customers preferred talking to my male colleagues. The male sellers got the eye contact, the nodding, the follow-up questions. Even when it was a topic I had covered before in my presentation, I noticed that they turned to my male colleagues for questions and not to me. When I noticed that, I said to myself: “Ok, I need to overcome this, so I need to be even more confident and comfortable around the product. I need to become the biggest expert on the product – perhaps even more than my male colleagues – to make sure that at a certain point, my gender or age won’t matter.

Zahra JivaSales Manager at Pipedrive

The results of such biases can be seen in the wage gap between men and women. The sales industry is just one of many industries affected. Women in sales earned an average of $695 each week, less than 65% of a man’s average earnings in sales.

Lucidchart’s survey found that women worked almost as much overtime as their male colleagues but were less likely to see the same rewards.

In fact, the more overtime women put in, the wider the pay gap gets. Similarly, women earned an average of $1,389 in commission, compared to $2,531 for men, meaning that women would need to close nearly twice as many deals to earn the same.

Do women and men have a different approach to sales?

Hollywood has a long tradition of featuring alpha males in sales roles. Michael Douglas in Wall Street is a prime example. This stereotype is not only untrue and unfair to women in sales, it also places unfair expectations on men.

In reality, women and men share the same capacities at top performance levels. Let’s take a look at what makes a successful salesperson and how those skills transcend gender.

What makes a successful salesperson?

ZS consulting firm conducted research on sales performance across several industries, including healthcare and financial services. From their analysis, they discovered seven key capacities in sales that differentiate high-performing salespeople from the rest.

  • Analyzing: The ability to see the big picture implications and cause-and-effect relationships.

  • Connecting: The ability to create a network of resources, through team members and elsewhere.

  • Collaborating: The ability to work collaboratively with other people.

  • Shaping solutions: The ability to empathize with the customer and adapt solutions to their needs.

  • Influencing: The ability to mold the message to make the biggest impact on the customer.

  • Driving outcomes: The ability to structure and organize strategies to deliver results.

  • Improving: the ability to continually seek out and learn new things.

All of these skills were used by high-performing salespeople of both genders. However, there were differences in which skills were most used. For example, women were more likely to focus on connecting, shaping solutions and collaborating than their male counterparts.

These particular skills are increasingly important as the sales process changes. With prospective customers facing more choices than ever, salespeople who are able to add additional value by collaborating with their customers to provide innovative and mutually beneficial solutions will stand out.

To convince, you have to learn to speak the other person’s language, use their words, use gestures. I always try to be a chameleon, because looking like the other person makes things much easier.

Cecilia InostrozaSales Director at Terre Solaire

Furthermore, with many salespeople working remotely and traveling less, there’s more reliance on video calls and other digital forms of communication. Emotional intelligence has always been important in sales, but now with so much happening at a distance and customers expecting meaningful connections, it’s more important than ever – and women are generally well-placed to demonstrate this.

We can’t generalize, but I can see that women usually pay more attention to details than most men and this is not necessarily just a rational choice. You have to think with the client’s head, use intuition and escape from clear rules, not just look at the data. Women’s creativity is also a little more sensitive at times, and using this way of working to understand the shopping experience is very positive.

Beatriz ZogaibCo-founder of JustForYou

What’s needed in sales leadership roles

Just as high-performing salespeople share the same skillsets regardless of gender, so do sales managers and leaders. However, being a great sales leader requires more than just the ability to consistently smash your own quota – you need to be able to motivate and empower others to do the same.

If you’re looking to become a sales manager, you’ll need to master both the art and science of sales. This includes many of the skills we’ve already discussed, including those more commonly associated with high-performing saleswomen.

Just as the best salespeople form strong connections with their prospects, an effective sales manager will connect with their sales development reps (SDRs) and identify how to nurture and coach them.

Likewise, collaboration is a key skill for both salespeople and leaders. The majority of your time as a sales manager will be spent working alongside your team to find the best possible solution for any obstacles they’re facing.

I didn’t know I would be a good leader until I became one. I think leadership is about listening and having empathy. Communication is essential and being a leader is also asking for help, not just demanding tasks. I believe that you can be a leader without a big team by being an example and inspiring people. Leadership is developed through behavior, through dialogue – this is the key: knowing how to listen, having empathy and asking for what you need in an assertive way.

Beatriz ZogaibCo-founder of JustForYou

As you climb the career ladder further, you’ll most likely also need to collaborate with the managers and leaders of other departments within the business. Establishing a positive relationship with your colleagues and showing a willingness to collaborate on objectives will make things easier for everyone, but you also need to be able to take the lead.

The leader is the one who will dare to say what he or she thinks, to ask questions, and this is what I try to convey. For people to follow you, you have to be clear in your ideas, your vision, where you want to go, even in the short term.

Cecilia InostrozaSales Director at Terre Solaire

While these skills can be demonstrated and developed by both men and women, research has shown that women are extremely effective as sales leaders. Furthermore, half of the U.S. wants to be led by a woman and yet, as we’ve reported above, just 26% of sales managers are female.

I think 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 and who speak to predominantly male audiences, for example. We are in a moment of paradigm shift.

Adriana KarpoviczSales Director at Stilingue

How to attract and retain women in sales

Whether they’re SaaS startups or large enterprises, sales organizations of all sizes are making hiring and retaining a more gender-diverse sales team a priority. By following these steps, companies can build stronger sales teams.

A safe environment is an environment of respect and that is for everyone. Respect, trust and empathy are essential.

Beatriz ZogaibCo-founder of JustForYou

Recognize and address any biases

While overt discrimination may be less common today, women in sales are still facing biases, like being seen as less knowledgeable or weaker than their male counterparts.

In many cases, these biases are subconscious, meaning people may not even be aware that these biases exist. Lucidchart’s research found that one in four men who work in sales said women in their industry don’t experience any bias whatsoever. However, women in the survey reported a number of biases in the workplace, signaling bias blindspots.

Leadership can bring these biases into awareness through training. For diversity to thrive, companies should be aware of biases that can be held, even unintentionally, and then work to correct any discrepancies.

Leaders also need to be able to communicate with their reports and their counterparts.

Keeping the door open is super important. Otherwise, your team will not see that you acknowledge a problem and will thus start feeling uncomfortable. Transparency is important when we talk about how a situation felt and openly discuss an experience a team member had. I do understand where they come from because often, I’ve had similar experiences. Talking about this can help because we can share learnings, strategies and consider together how we want to deal with the situation.

Zahra JivaSales Manager at Pipedrive

Adopt inclusive recruiting practices

Encouraging more women to apply for sales positions can be as simple as rewording your job descriptions so that they’re more gender-neutral. Avoid traditionally masculine language that emphasizes aggression and competitiveness.

For example, RingCentral used augmented writing platform Textio specifically to improve their job descriptions and sourcing emails so that they’d attract a more diverse range of talent.

For the hiring process itself, using a “blind” process that hides any information related to the candidate’s gender prevents any biases – subconscious or otherwise – from influencing the decision.

In addition, having more than one woman in the candidate pool encourages more diverse hiring. One study found that when two women were in the final round of four candidates, the chances of hiring one of them was 50%. However, when there was just one, the chances of hiring a woman dropped to 0%.

Develop mentorship and sponsorship programs

If representation is currently an issue, creating a mentorship or sponsorship program can help everyone, women included, to feel more at ease on your team.

By matching up new employees with two mentors (one male, one female), they have an opportunity to ask questions without fear of judgment and build relationships that will help them progress in their sales careers. Giving employees a choice means they can gain a range of insights and choose the mentor they feel most comfortable speaking with at the time.

Another way to promote inclusion is by sponsoring and promoting employee resource groups (ERGs). Formed by employees who share a common characteristic (such as gender), ERGs provide an opportunity for support, networking and career development.

Every company should have committees made up of women. Here at Stilingue, we have one and we discuss several guidelines for the development of women, how they can 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 that a leadership role is too far away from them, but having a committee helps change that perspective.

Adriana KarpoviczSales Director at Stilingue

For example, AT&T has 37 employee groups and networks across their enterprise, including Women of AT&T, Advocates for Women in Tech and AT&T Women of Business.

Finding a mentor is super important to teach us how to deal with certain challenges in our career. This person doesn’t have to be in the same company, it’s better to find someone who has an experience equal to yours, or slightly more senior. The cliché of the boys club playing golf, drinking together and learning from each other is not so silly, and it’s a shame it’s not more common among women. I’m a big believer in sisterhood. Creating clubs between women, discussing our experiences, what motivates us, not being afraid to share our ambition, not being ashamed to say what we want (to lead, to earn money, to have a great career) is important.

Isabelle HermannSenior Marketing Manager at Savage X Fenty

Motivate your sales team with the right perks

Perks are a key part of attracting high-performing sales professionals, but it’s important to understand that priorities can differ between some (but certainly not all) men and women. Lucidchart’s research found that the most important perk for men was regular performance bonuses but, for women, it was the opportunity to have a more flexible schedule.

To learn more about perks that may attract, retain and motivate your team, survey your people. Since the pandemic, flexibility has become increasingly important for both genders.

Of course, no number of perks can make up for an unfair compensation plan. Ensuring that women sales pros are properly paid for their work on the same terms as their male counterparts will demonstrate that you’re truly committed to gender diversity.

Final Thoughts

There’s no doubt that women in sales face plenty of challenges. B2B sales teams have disproportionately few women on their team, particularly in management and leadership positions. Persisting stereotypes and subconscious biases have made it more difficult for women to advance in a sales career and less likely that they’ll be properly compensated.

However, women have a hugely positive impact on sales, with sales teams led by women outperforming those led by men. As businesses take action to ensure that hiring processes and work practices are more inclusive, we can expect to see more women get paid their fair share and climb the ladder in a sales career.

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