Bridging the Gender Gap in Sales

July 18, 2014

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Recently, the LinkedIn Sales Solutions team conducted an analysis of the LinkedIn member network to measure the representation of women by job function, title, industry, and more. As it relates to the profession of selling, the study revealed some telling results. The study confirmed what I already believed, which is that women are unrepresented in sales as a whole (only 39%) and representation in senior ranks is even less.

For more details, check out the #womeninsales Infographic here.

Today, I want to focus attention and spur conversation about why more women don’t embark on a career in sales.

From the moment I fell into my first serious sales job, I have loved it. My earning potential was largely unlimited, one day never looked exactly like the next, and I had a lot of flexibility in how I went about accomplishing my goals. This last point was so important for me, because I have never been and never will be a 9-5 gal.

From my point of view, there are three reasons why women still don’t seek out selling roles. I’m sure you can come up with more, but these are top of mind for me:

  1. Sales has an image problem. Somewhere buried deep in the collective psyche is the bias that anyone who sells is nothing more than a sleazy, snake oil salesman out to take money from your pocket. Think cheesy used car sales guy. If the perception is that selling is about hounding people until they buy something versus helping companies solve their business problems, it is no wonder that sales hasn’t held much career appeal in the eyes of women.
  2. Selling is viewed as a cut-throat, competitive business. While boys grow up competing against each other in team sports, where there are always winners and losers, girls are taught to play nice with each other. The aggressive, hunter/kill mentality often seen (and rewarded) in many sales organizations holds no appeal for many women. Women tend to want to work in collaborative, team environments where the focus in on serving customers not crushing quotas.
  3. Companies do a poor job tailoring their recruitment efforts to what women want. I think many women don’t know what they don’t know. A career in sales can offer tremendous flexibility and freedom. However, as colleague Trish Bertuzzi suggests in her excellent blog post on the topic, companies should “Lay off the war words Hunt, kill, crush – these words tend not to appeal to female candidates. “The VP Sales is looking for other sales animals.” (Some might argue that ‘ninja’ & ‘rockstar’ are male-centric too.)” Companies like Forrester know how to appeal to women and balance the perks they offer; there is something for everyone. It is a great time to be in sales.

The profession of selling has evolved quite a bit since I first started selling. Technology has certainly had much to do with that. Though Willy Loman, the character in Arthur Miller’s classic, Death of a Salesman represented the stereotypical view of a salesman’s entire life spent on the road, times have clearly changed. Business is conducted through multiple channels and mediums, many of which don’t require that you leave the comfort of your home office.

How do companies attract feminine talent? Education, recruitment and flexibility.

It first begins with organizations opening up to the idea that they need to balance the gender mix. Diversity of style, approach and thinking needs to be valued more. Any sales team largely made up of aggressive male hunters doesn’t bode well over time.

Put more emphasis on recruiting women and tailor the benefits message to incorporate those things that will be important to them.

Finally, be flexible. Remote working and meeting options, approach to getting the job done, and more.

As Kraft Foods’ Valerie Oswalt, customer vice president of business development for Sales & Customer Logistics and the mother of two children, says: “A lot of women feel they can’t have everything—certainly not at the same time. Women don’t have to give up on their dreams. They may not get there as fast, but they will deliver the results.”

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