I don’t think most females in sales think they are unique (myself included), but we are. We are in the minority. Women account for only 39% of all sales staff in the United States. Take it one step further, and we make up just 25% of the tech sales workforce. The numbers are even more dramatic when you look at management, where women make up just 12% of sales leadership roles. We are rare unicorns (it had to be said!)
I didn’t grow up with a dream of being in sales, and for most sales people I’ve spoken with (male or female), that’s the case. I wanted to go into the FBI and put white collar criminals away. I was consumed with the notion of having a positive impact on the world. I wanted to help people. I wanted to help the small business owners who had the American dream regardless of the odds against them. I wanted to make sure they knew they had an ally, someone to protect the business they fought so hard for. I wanted to fight for those that needed a voice and an advocate.
Many years later, I realized I have accomplished my goals, just in a different way than I envisioned.
My job today is to help small and mid-sized businesses. I am their advocate. I am their ally. I help protect their business. I help them thrive. If you do it right, this is sales.
Let’s be honest, when someone says “sales” most people think of some pushy guy (yes, guy) in a polyester suit. The pushy guy in the polyester suit is still out there – but that is not the sales world I live in. It is not the sales world that MOST of us sales people live in. Except for maybe the guy part…
So, here’s where I start. We NEED more women in sales. Why? Well, let’s start with the facts and appeal to the business owners and sales leaders out there - more diversity in the workplace isn’t just good for gender equality, it’s good for business. In a study by Xactly, they found that women outperformed men in quota attainment. And when it comes to leadership, data suggests that by increasing the representation of women in top management positions from 0 to 30%, a company could expect a 15% rise in profitability. The business case is clear. I encourage you to be deliberate in the effort to hire more females in your sales force (I’ll tell you how in a bit).
To the ladies out there - be forewarned that I am going to make some very gender-specific generalizations here, and take them as you may. We are relationship builders, nurturers by nature. We have a way of empathizing, asking the right questions and getting to the answers that really give us an understanding of what is at the root of the issue. Ask any good sales person the key to sales and they will say “listening,” “discovery,” “understanding the key business issues the customer is trying to solve.” WE GOT THIS! We were born for this. (And as a side note, these are all the qualities that will make you a great leader too!) If you are good at sales, you will always have a job. You will always have a mission.
Admittedly, some sales skills are like using your left hand when you’re right-handed, but you learn. With practice, you get better at negotiating, closing, and objection handling. I promise those skills can be learned.
As a female sales leader, I say unequivocally that I want more women in the profession. Hiring women in sales is hard. Fact is, there are some misconceptions we have to overcome first:
- The sales profession has an image problem (period).
- It is NOT all about the money: The best sales people do it because they sincerely believe they are improving the lives of their customers and their businesses.
- As leaders, we must be deliberate when it comes to diversity and inclusion.
The challenge is that there simply aren’t enough women applying for sales roles. But that doesn’t mean we can’t optimize our current hiring practices to encourage more women to apply.
While I have by no means cracked the code on hiring women in sales, here are a few of the strategies I strive for when hiring a more diverse sales team.
- Review your job descriptions for a mission: This is not just for women, it’s for all of us. Most of us are looking for a job with purpose. Where we can impact the lives of our customers, the business owners we work with, the people in our office, the charities our company supports. Your job description should read like an inspirational advertisement about your company and how their role can make a difference, not just a list of ingredients.
- Review it again – this time for qualifications: Think long and hard about what is really required for the role, then once you decide, be creative with how you describe your required qualifications. Men and women tend to view job qualifications in a different way. Research demonstrates that when men look at a list of requirements, they feel confident enough to apply if they satisfy about 60% of the items. Women, on the other hand, only feel confident enough to apply if they meet closer to 100% of the qualifications. It doesn’t mean they aren’t as qualified, it just means they have a different threshold before they apply.
- Review it one last time - this time for gendered language. We’ve written about this topic before, but a ton of research has come out in recent years about the different ways that certain words in job descriptions can unintentionally discourage women from applying. Hunters, hungry, aggressive…these are NOT the words that I associate with the kind of sales I remotely want to engage in. I have no interest in killing, eating or pressuring my clients, and am very confident that my counterparts in sales (male or female) feel the same. The best of us are partners with our clients, guides through the sales process, we consult, we are trusted advisors, we are offering a solution to improve their lives or businesses. You can learn more concrete ways to tackle gender in job descriptions here.
- Pay attention to employer branding. Most applicants who are serious about a position will browse your website, Glassdoor page, or social media to get a glimpse into your office culture. Here’s your chance to disprove the “sales culture” stereotype by featuring pictures of your employees working or collaborating together. Candidates want to be able to envision themselves at your company, and if none of your pictures contain women, you could have a major problem.
- Rethink the benefits your company offers. Working women still handle the majority of household chores and childcare, so it makes perfect sense that they also prefer certain types of benefits. One way to attract more female applicants is to add benefits that appeal to women, such as flex time, remote work, generous parental leave, onsite childcare, or even more creative benefits like egg freezing.
- Recruit straight out of college. A lot of graduating college students have no idea what they want to do, and they are more open-minded about the direction their career could go. Recruiting female candidates straight out of college gives them the opportunity to get their feet wet in a career where they could thrive. For example, competitive people (male or female) often thrive in sales, and some of the best sales people I’ve worked with were former athletes in high school or college. Many people have the potential to excel in sales, but they never had the chance to entertain the idea.
- Interviewing for diversity. Help your hiring managers by training them on interviewing – it’s a learned skill. One piece of advice is to get specific in your interviewing style. An example: Women have a tendency to “couch” their statements and use qualifiers. They tend to be more inclusive of their accomplishments by crediting a joint effort for their results rather than taking full credit. I encourage interviewers to drill down and get more specific about the exact role their interviewee played in the project - “What were your specific responsibilities? Were you a member of the project and owned a particular portion of the project? Who was ultimately responsible for the outcomes? Who reported the results of the project? To whom?” By getting to the heart of their accomplishments, you become less likely to hire the wrong person or to dismiss the right one.
- Mentor: This goes for men and women. Be an advocate for diversity in your organization by mentoring. I would not be where I am today without the amazing mentors I have had in my career (male and female). They have been my guides, advocates, and sounding boards, and their impact on my life personally and professionally has been invaluable. I encourage us to mentor those that are different than us. I encourage us to seek out mentors that are different than us. By seeking out the same we do ourselves a disservice. Which leads me to my next point…
- Women are different than men. NEWSFLASH. Some women have more masculine traits. Some of us do not. We will lead differently, we may sell differently, we “show up” differently. Stereotypical masculine traits can be good and bad, same goes for female traits. As a female interviewing for a leadership position, I may show vulnerability in my interview. Before seeing this as weakness or a lack of confidence, think twice. Consider how this is a trait that can foster trust, loyalty, and open communication.
So – be deliberate. Be committed. Be a part of the change Whether you’re male or female, a senior leader or just starting out in your career – we can all have an impact.
(Amyra Rand is the VP of Sales & Strategic Partnerships at Criteria Corp. She will be speaking on a panel on Women in Sales and Leadership on April 4, 2018 at the national AA-ISP Leadership Summit in Chicago.)