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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Sales is a tough career before you even take a lack of female representation into account.
Beyond representation and career challenges, women in sales are also up against a historical gender imbalance.
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...
… As well as by women trying to win new business.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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%.
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.
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.
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.
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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