What do some of the most famous salesmen — Willy Loman, Ron Popeil, Ty Warner, Joe Girard — have in common? The answer is in the question: they’re all men.
Women have been underrepresented in sales since — well, since man made his very first sale more than 50,000 years ago. According to a 2021 study by Xactly, women make up only 29% of sales representatives and just 26% of sales managers.
This despite the fact that women have been outperforming men in sales consistently for over 20 years. Women-led sales teams are linked to higher sales unit performance, higher customer satisfaction, higher employee retention, and better overall job satisfaction.
Even though women-led sales teams shine, the 2019 BCG Sales Leadership Gender Gap reported that “There are fewer women leaders in sales than in any other business function, except Supply Chain and Logistics.”
You don’t have to look hard to see that in sales, the past still influences the present. The GlenGarry Glen Ross-style culture at many sales organizations and the hyper-competitive nature of the industry tends to prioritize and promote men, resulting in lower salaries and fewer leadership opportunities for women. The perception of the industry — seen as being inhospitable for women — reinforces the problem and further widens the gender gap. It’s a vicious circle.
Why do women (on aggregate) outperform men in sales? They tend to operate on the opposite end of the spectrum from the competitive and aggressive sales stereotype. Women in sales excel at collaborating, creating a shared vision for success, orchestrating internal resources, problem solving, and managing client relationships. That’s not to say that men don’t excel at these things as well — it’s simply more consistent among women, according to the data.
What can be done to empower women in the sales industry?
Women have all the skills necessary to excel in sales — they simply need the training, salary, and opportunities that match their abilities and challenge them further. Here’s what leaders in sales can do to promote opportunities:
- Make gender diversity an explicit goal of sales recruitment
- Highlight and promote the work of women in the workplace
- Place more women in sales leadership roles to drive engagement and recruitment of women
- Train employees and leadership, especially, to address unconscious biases that impact women’s success in sales
- Build peer-to-peer network support
While there is no magic bullet that will level the playing field, organizations that prioritize hiring and training women are likely to see results in their sales numbers. And though it’s unlikely the balance of men-women in the profession will ever be 50/50, the changes already taking place in the industry are destined to at least somewhat narrow that gap.