When will we start talking about diversity in… sales?

As it turns out, gender diversity in senior sales roles appear to be worse than in tech roles. Why is that, and what can be done about it?

Diversity issues everywhere

I have a STEM background, I am an entrepreneur, and I am a woman. A lot of those things don’t usually go together, and I know I am an outlier. Throughout my career, I have been part of conversations on how to improve on diversity in whatever career I was in, and it is with great sadness that the further I get, the fewer women there seems to be around me.

Starting in STEM, as a starry-eyed (pardon the pun) Astrophysics PhD, the balance was pretty much 50–50. There, the debate was on how to keep the women and get them into higher positions and professorships. After switching careers into data science and tech, things got worse. It is well known that c. 15–30% of technical and data science roles are held by women today. Countless events, publications, and communities have been started to improve on these statistics — as they should!

From Pixabay

It gets worse

Over the last year, though, I have been speaking with hundreds of people working in and around sales and I realised, to my horror, that this is one area that is doing even worse. I specifically try to reach individuals in senior sales roles (e.g. Chief Commercial Officers, Chief Revenue Officers, VP of Sales, Head of Sales) in B2B start-ups and SMB’s (sales team sizes less than 25) and with no other bias in my selection the ratio of women in my audience is an absolutely shocking 6%. Six percent. I literally have more people named ‘Steve’ than I have women in my audience. Why is that?

Why so few senior sales women?

My guess is that the industry suffers from two key problems, both related to perception: a flawed image, and competition. Starting with the first, I think most who are not familiar with working in sales have the image of the “used car salesman” in their mind. A cocky man with a large grin and a flashy watch, trying to push something on you that you don’t want. This is not how you do B2B sales. In B2B enterprise sales, you care about building a relationship and trust, asking questions and using your emotional intelligence to connect, and to find win-win solutions in which both parties walk away happy and satisfied. Who would not want to be that person?

Second, there is a clear perception that sales teams are competitive and that the sales culture is aggressive and testosterone-fuelled. There is some truth to this, sales in the past may have operated that way, and some teams probably still do, but most sales leaders will have recognised the value of teamwork and collaboration today and will often create incentive plans that include an element of team-based bonus.

Which brings us to a potential third reason for our missing women; commission-based compensation. In most enterprise sales teams, the sales people are to a lesser or greater extent compensated with an outcomes-based plan. This means more sales equals more pay, the flipside of which is that a sales person’s income can be uncertain. Many women are not willing to take this sort of a risk, and will shun sales jobs for safer perceived jobs in e.g. marketing.

From Pixabay

What can we do?

Well, we need to tackle all the issues mentioned above. Both of the key issues, around the image of sales as a profession and the expectation of an aggressive culture, are in some ways intertwined and need to be tackled together in my opinion. Habits like pitting sales people against each other, sales people being allowed to “steal” each other’s leads, and the ringing of bells when sales are made need to be cleared out. Teamwork should be encouraged, and positive role models should be picked out and highlighted.

These role models can then share their experiences with making deals happen, with an emphasis on building relationships for the longevity. The importance of role models that ‘look like you’ (in this case, female) cannot be overstated. My wish would be a series of short video clips with senior female sales leaders talking about how they got into sales and what the enjoy about it.

And by the way, enjoying making money is a completely valid reason! However, more flexible compensation models should be made available. If a sales rep, no matter who they are, prefers a larger base salary and in return accepts a lower upside if things go well then as a sales leader we should offer that. We should be mindful of every person’s individual situation, and help them define a package and work situation that works for them.

From Pixabay

Let’s talk about it

I think it is so important just to talk about areas of inequality and diversity problems. At times it may feel like talking is worthless, that nothing every changes, but in my experience, talking is a critical first step. If we don’t talk about injustices, why would anyone be incentivised to change? If we don’t pressure organisations to do better, why would they bother? We need to talk about diversity, we need to start a movement where at first, organisations can signal their progressiveness by joining, and later, it becomes a badge of shame to not be associated. So, let’s talk about it; share your story and join the movement for diversity in sales!

Dr Kim Nilsson is a PhD Astrophysicist turned serial entrepreneur. Her first business is a data science marketplace and AI-as-a-Service provider. She is the CEO and co-founder of PeripherAi, a SaaS platform to turn sales into a scalable and predictable process in small businesses by integrating human knowledge with data insights. She has been named as one of the Top 100 Most Influential Women in IT in the UK 2018–2021.