When we talk about diversity, I’ll be the first to admit that I see the diversity challenge through a very specific lens, and it’s definitely not the whole story. I’m Caucasian and born into a middle-class family, so my experiences aren’t going to tell the whole story, nor would I try to pretend that I understand the challenges faced by women of color, the LGBT community or the multitude of groups that face very unique challenges in our current climate of B2B sales.
But one piece of the DEI conversation that’s near and dear to my heart is gender parity in sales and sales leadership. And I can certainly talk about being a female in a historically male-dominated field. So, let’s start there. Do we actually have a gender diversity problem in sales?
For me, it’s clear: The answer is a resounding yes.
A study from a few years ago found that very few women are making it to the sales decision-making table. Only 11.7 percent of women held senior sales executive roles amongst the 150 largest companies in Silicon Valley. Go up another layer for the top 15 companies in the same study, and you’ll discover that only one woman has ever held the top sales exec role.
And if we change the vantage point a bit and look at the boards of the Fortune 1000 companies, we’ll find that women make up less than 18 percent of their seats. And they only represent 5.6 percent of executives of S&P 500.
Why does gender diversity matter, really? And no offense to my multitude of white, male friends in the industry, but why should it matter to you?
I could certainly stand high on my soapbox and talk about all the humanistic reasons that I believe diversity matters. The fact is that equality, inclusion, equal access to opportunity, equal pay for equal work all matter to me at a foundational level. But for today’s conversation, I’ll stick to the business dynamic aspect of that why.
Diversity matters because diverse teams are simply better. So much has been written on the topic that I certainly won’t try to recap much of it here, but it has never been clearer than it is today that diversity wins when it comes to business.
Working with people that are different from us makes us better. It challenges our brains to think differently and pushes us outside of our assumptions and comfort zones. Sameness discourages innovation, while diversity spurs it forward. We all know that in B2B, the best teams, the best companies, and the best products innovate and find solutions faster, and diversity is typically a catalyst to make that happen.
McKinsey did an exhaustive study on the topic in 2015. So if you have even an ounce of doubt about the reality of that statement then I encourage you to go read it.
We can do better, and we must.
To me, both employers and women need to take ownership to solve the disparity for the lack of women in sales. Let’s start with employers.
I’ll start by saying that diversity in sales doesn’t just happen. If you want a more diverse and inclusive sales culture, then you’re going to have to build it with intention, step by step, and it will take work. Intuitively, we hire people that look, think and act like us. If you’re running a male-dominated sales team today, then the first few female hires will be the hardest, but if you hire right, it will be worth it.
Showcase successful females on your teams. Amplify their voices, particularly online and through social channels. And remember that women may be less likely to speak up and bulldoze their way to the top, so be deliberate at making it happen.
Make sure you write gender-neutral job descriptions. Tech sales, in particular, has a long history of a “bro” culture, and I’m amazed at how many job descriptions I read for sellers that sound like you’re applying to join a fraternity instead of a B2B sales team!
Take a long hard look at your interview process. Are you giving people a truly diverse view of your company and of the role? Are you showcasing diversity in who your candidates speak to, the types of questions that are asked, and how the role is described?
If all else fails, be willing to spend the money to attract the diverse talent that you so desperately need. If you’re struggling to fill your sales pipeline with world-class female candidates, then consider using a recruiting firm that specializes in helping companies solve for that specific challenge. There are loads of great ones out there.
As much as I don’t love the reality of what gender parity looks like in sales today, I’m the first to admit that, as women, we absolutely have an opportunity and a responsibility to make a difference in the industry. Here are a few things that I encourage ladies that I work with and that work on my team do:
Speak up in meetings. Share your opinion more than you feel comfortable doing. So many of us were conditioned at an early age to blend in or fade to the background, that there is something that feels inherently unnatural about speaking up or purposefully standing out. Push against that urge and speak up.
In that same vein, ask for what you want. Don’t wait until you feel 100 percent qualified to put your hand up or ask for that next promotion. We won’t win the war towards equal pay or equal opportunity if we don’t start asking for what we want as often as our male counterparts do.
Women are raised from an early age to physically take up less space. We cross our legs. Slump our shoulders. Angle our bodies awkwardly in photos to look thin (you know you’ve done it). If you want to learn more about the topic I highly recommend that you read (or listen to) Presence: Bringing Your Boldest Self to Your Biggest Challenges, by Amy Cuddy.
But it comes down to the fact that our bodies affect our minds, and by taking up a posture of power and presence we train ourselves to actually feel more powerful. In short, start practicing your superwoman pose until it starts to feel more natural.
There are so many things that women naturally bring to the table that quite often make us both great sellers and great leaders. Many of us are naturally good listeners and more perceptive of our surroundings. We are often big picture thinkers, which can make us better at managing complexity.
Also, most of us tend to be acutely aware of our weaknesses, but we so often miss the strengths that are literally built into our DNA. So if you’re naturally a really great listener who asks super insightful questions and knows how to layer great questions on top of great questions, lean into that. It will take you far.
Women are bred towards perfection from birth, and with that comes an instilled fear of failure. There is tons of research that shows girls are more likely to see failure as a sign that they are, in fact, a failure. Whereas boys see failure as a result of circumstance. Girls are taught to be perfect and to avoid failure at all costs, while boys are bred to be brave and take chances.
Fear of failure can so often hold us back from going after the things we want. If you struggle with this area, Reshma Saujani has a great TED Talk on the topic.
Notwithstanding the risk of it sounding like a sales pitch, I’m proud to say I work for Demandbase, a company that both celebrates and promotes strong female sales leaders. Our Head of Enterprise Sales and Head of Mid-Market Sales are both kick-ass female sales leaders.
It’s important to point out, however, that we are most definitely the exception and not the rule when it comes to gender parity in sales leadership. It’s time to give women our place at the sales table. Trust me, we know what we’re doing.
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