Why aren’t there more women in high tech sales?

February 8, 2017

A collaborative post from Shann McGrail and Pete Smith

Last August, I published a post called, “Why do we hate (our own) sales people?”. Since then it has been viewed almost 150,000 times and received over 15,000 likes, comments, and shares. I have enjoyed reading the comments that my post generated. Many have been thought provoking, but none more so than one from Shann McGrail. Her comment that captured my attention was: "You've also given me some insight to a question I've wondered about for a while which is - why aren't there more women in enterprise sales." [Enterprise sales typically refers to the sale of high tech or software solutions to large organizations in either the public or private sector.]

I was stunned, in part, because many of the best enterprise sales reps that I worked with are women. Also, as the father of three grown daughters and a coach or mentor to many female professionals and executives, I hadn’t considered that there is a systemic bias in sales. Since Shann is very involved in mentorship and career development for women in technology, I was curious to get her perspective. This article is a is a result of those conversations. 

Via email, I asked Shann for her perspective on what my post answered for her in terms of why there are not more women in enterprise sales roles. Her response was:

“My perspective comes from starting my career in enterprise sales, spending many years working for some of the biggest technology companies in the industry and being involved in mentoring and coaching programs for women. Add in speaking engagements, workshops and career conversations with talented, smart women and a few recurring themes emerge. While I hate to overgeneralize, I think the themes are worthy of attention. The first few relate to the previous post on Why we Hate (our own) Sales People:

  • Poor perception of sales people
  • Lack of understanding about what a sales person truly does and the importance of their function within a company 

What I find more often unique with women:

  • Sales involves a high level of risk of rejection as much internally in the organization as externally with customers.
  • Sales requires a large degree of confidence, which most professional, even very successful women report lacking to the same degree as their male counterparts.
  • Related to the point above, some of the core sales skills are more frequently cited by women as being challenging. Frequently cited examples include negotiating and presenting to large groups.
  • The role models of successful enterprise sales women are even more rare than those for women in technical roles.
  • There is a preference to be “liked” and accepted rather than respected, to support rather than to take the lead.
  • The other factor is spending too much time “overthinking it” verses just jumping in and leading with a yes."

When I read Shann’s response aloud to one of my daughters, she raised her hand in agreement on each point and said that she sees many of the traits described above in herself. This got me thinking and kept the conversation between myself and Shann going.

From our experience, these are the traits of highly successful enterprise sales reps 

  • Collaborative leadership: In the world of Business-to-Business (B2B) sales where no one wins alone, being able to work with and lead a team is crucial. Women are often credited with strong collaboration skills and being good at incorporating views of all team members. This is effective for rallying internal teams and working with customer teams.
  • High Emotional Intelligence: Women are credited with being empathetic and better tuned into emotions, which helps in reading others and building trusted relationships. 
  • Communication skills: Women tend to balance the ability to listen with the skill of finding the right word at the right time. This is critical in sales situations when customers are divulging important information and the ability to listen for the opportunity will make or break a deal.
  • Customer Advocacy: Women tend to be more highly motivated by strategy and organizational fit. When the stakes for both the vendor and their customers are high and the deals are complex, an advocate is needed inside the vendor’s company to connect the dots and find the win.

With the foundation of natural skills that can lead to a successful career in sales, we would like to share four more reasons why more women should consider enterprise sales:

Pay package: According to Canadian Business, a sales career makes the list of best paying jobs with a 28% growth in salary over the last six years. Depending on the industry, the compensation packages with base salary and commissions can be lucrative. The best part of the pay package is the relatively unlimited earning potential – the more you sell, the more you earn.  

Freedom: Managing work and life balance is a challenge for anyone. Salespeople, however, manage their schedules based on driving outcomes and meeting customers’ needs. In a role where productivity and results are more important than time spent at a desk, there is flexibility to manage business demands along with life’s responsibilities. It’s not all sunshine though! There is a downside of balancing what the customer needs compared to what everyone else does to deliver on the promise. Salespeople fill the gaps to meet the customer expectations. Salespeople also must be consistently making or exceeding your sales quota to earn the right to exercise this freedom.

Level of Control: You don’t have a boss when you are exceeding your quota. Micromanagement disappears. The measures of success in sales are clear with less ambiguity than in other positions. It’s one of the places where salary gender bias is less likely because incentive compensation plans are written for the role.

Career Path: The path to CEO often includes sales experience. Sales can be the proving ground for an ability to create a strategy; persuade a multitude of stakeholders; act on customer insights; manage difficult conversations; display business acumen; and demonstrate clear accountability to deliver results. Building enterprise sales experience removes one of the roadblocks on the way to the top.

What’s Next?

If you are a woman evaluating your career options, throw away your perceptions of sales and start with a clean slate. Seek out a sales leader for advice and information on whether enterprise sales might be right for you. If you are already in sales and know someone who has the skills, talent and ambition to be in sales, offer encouragement or consider mentoring.

What do you think? We would be interested in your comments.

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