Is it time to recruit more women into sales?

In our Sales Effectiveness focus month, Nick de Cent asks if it’s time to storm the gates of the last male bastion in business.

If there is one last male bastion in business, then it’s got to be sales. True, there are plenty of women out there selling, but they tend to be clustered in pockets – in retail and certain industry sectors or geographies.

An initial glance at the UK’s September 2013 report “Women in the labour market” may suggest women are in the ascendancy: women dominate in the sales and customer service sectors, representing 63% of those employed. However, the customer service component tends to inflate the extent of female representation.

The most recent data on UK sales employment confirm the sales gender divide: 54 per cent are salesmen and 46% are saleswomen1. In B2B sales, the figures are more polarised: 70 per cent are male and 30 per cent female. The divide amongst account managers and BDMs (business development managers) is similar: 68 per cent are male and 32 per cent female.

At the top level – sales and marketing directors – the gulf between the sexes widens: 78 per cent are male and 22 per cent are female. Overall, the figures show that “37 per cent of all male sales staff are in managerial or associate professional roles; however, only 15 per cent of female sales staff falls into these groups”.

Gender representation in selling differs significantly from country to country, depending on the local culture, and also varies according to industry. For instance, at a recent conference in Singapore organised by sales performance improvement specialist Consalia, one speaker from the pharma sector indicated that China’s pharma sales forces tend to be female dominated while those in India are largely male. Whatever the pattern on the ground, however, management and leadership remain predominantly male across all organisations.

“At the top level – sales and marketing directors – the gulf between the sexes widens: 78 per cent are male and 22 per cent are female.”

Nevertheless, the nature of today’s sales role is fundamentally changing, shaped by the inexorable evolution of the marketplace. Just as importantly, the wider economic landscape is developing and women are progressing rapidly in terms of their purchasing power.

Surely, in light of such events, it makes sense for women to be more involved in the organisations that are the revenue engines of the business world? The UK’s Sales Leadership Alliance – an organisation representing sales leaders from large organisations – certainly thinks so.

It is about to publish a discussion paper on the subject of women in sales. The paper highlights five key benefits of promoting a more even mix at all levels of a sales operation. Each has the potential to make a major impact on business performance:

1. Better alignment to customers. Women not only make up the majority in most buying teams – recent figures for the UK indicate that 40 per cent of buyers and procurement specialists are male while 60 per cent are female – they are also the key economic stakeholders of the future: women are forecast to own 65% of wealth by 2025 and now influence over 70% of buying decisions.

2. A more compelling brand. A balanced gender profile – at all levels of an organisation – improves market perception, especially with regard to its ‘hiring brand’ and ability to attract the best new talent.

3. Gender diversity drives innovation. Studies demonstrate a strong positive link between diverse workforces and innovation. Teams with a more equal mix of women and men perform more strongly in several ways, including at problem solving.

4. Financial performance. Statistical and anecdotal evidence suggests that companies perform better financially where there is a more equal gender mix, both at the team and organisational level.

5. Improved governance. Organisations with greater female leadership representation tend to pay more attention to governance issues and communicate better with customers, employees and other stakeholders.

So why aren’t there more women in sales, particularly at the higher levels? Issues such as the ‘glass ceiling’ are certainly still relevant, while the testosterone-fuelled sales culture of some organisations also deters and inhibits female talent. Dr Beth Rogers, head of the Marketing and Sales Subject Group at Portsmouth Business School, recalls the bad old days in sales. “We have to recognise that sales has been a very macho environment. Anybody of my age, who has not found that challenging at times, I think they’ve been very lucky.”

 

“Women make up half the talent pool and the consensus is that there’s a talent shortage out there.”

 

Work-life balance is another consideration, while a lack of sponsorship from senior leadership may prevent many women from rising to the top. Numerous women, too, are put off by the ‘all male club’ culture of some sales organisations or the traditional hierarchical structure of others, as demonstrated by record numbers of talented women deciding to start their own businesses.

Yet, if we don’t set out to engage more women in this extremely important – and potentially very rewarding – profession, our organisations will suffer. Women make up half the talent pool and the consensus is that there’s a talent shortage out there. So, if we don’t recruit the best women into sales and management, businesses will miss out on a valuable resource.

Furthermore, there is some evidence that what many consider to be typically ‘female’ behavioural attributes are better aligned to the selling styles demanded by today’s markets. Women may also be more naturally suited to the role of the sales manager.

Dr Nikala Lane of Warwick Business School highlights sales management as the key point of difference between men and women in selling: “There is a good case for increasing female participation in sales management roles. Our studies suggest that female managers take better to a coaching and a facilitative management style and are more effective in this type of leadership role.” Interestingly, the study indicates that women tend to motivate their teams more through ‘behaviour control’, rather than relying on commission and bonuses.

According to McKinsey & Company, at the leadership level too, there are good reasons why companies might want more women in place: they will be more competitive, both in terms of their financial and operational performance and from the perspective of ‘organisational health’.

References

1. Source: ONS (2011) Labour Force Survey: EMP16: all in employment by status, occupation and sex, Quarter 2 (Apr – Jun) 2011.

 

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About the author:

Nick de Cent is a journalist, editor and social media specialist with 30 years’ experience writing about business and management. He has retained an interest in sales performance issues since the 1980s and is a passionate advocate for professionalism in selling. He currently edits and writes for various print and online media, including The Times ‘Sales Performance’ supplement, Sales Initiative magazine, eyeforpharma.com and Pharmaphorum.com, as well as corporate clients such as McKinsey & Co, the Sales Leadership Alliance, Consalia and SalesAssessment.com.

Nick has launched and edited business magazines in the finance and sales fields and contributed to a wide range of publications in the national, business and IT press, including the Financial Times. He works extensively in social media on behalf of clients, particularly in the science and technology sectors. Nick has an honours degree in biology and is a Fellow of the RSA.

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