Diversity in Sales – Gender and more

A few weeks ago I was asked to introduce a debate around women and sales, in a joint event between the WE (women empowerment) and the Sales clubs (of which I am the proud academic sponsor) of the ESADE Alumni association (you can find the link to the spanish recording here). For anyone that has been to sales conventions or meetings, it is evident that women are a minority in complex sales organizations (financial services, technology, commodities) and a majority in simple sales settings (shop clerks, telemarketing). Looking for data on this, the latest US labor statistics that I could find shot that while the gender split in sales positions is roughly 50/50, it is harder to find women in management positions (only 30%) and in complex B2B sales settings. The 30% ceiling also appeared in the statistics of women in management that Eugènia Bieto, from the WE club shared during the discussion. Looking at this first evidence, my question was, is this because women are “worst” than men in sales? (I already knew that they are not, but academics are always on the hunt for evidence).

In order to stay within the US economy I found a very interesting paper by Inks, Borders, Lester & Loe that compares the performance of men and women in the collegiate sales competition. The results from their three-year comparison shows that, in that competition, women perform significantly better than men in all categories, and specially in being assertive when asking for the sale, which may be counter-intuitive to stereotypes of the “gentler” gender. The evidence presented by this article was also coincidental with other research by Siguaw and Honeycutt or by Lane & Crane that suggest that women show “higher levels of customer orientation” and are “better at building a relationship and attending to customers”. These traits are particularly important in modern sales settings, in which salespeople are expected to build relationships with customers and offer consultative solutions, as opposed to older sales practices based on just peddling the goods and services that the company sells.

So, why are women under-represented in sales? The answer to this question took us to a very interesting discussion, in which a few ideas were presented:

  • Male managers have been hiring for likeness rather than for performance. Sales departments and sales managers have only recently embraced quantification and evaluation. Traditionally, sales performance, specially in complex sales, has been hard to evaluate, as it entails many subjective elements, and excellent salespeople were even called “rainmakers”, some sort of magician able to woo customers to the company. In this “magical thinking” environment, sales managers have been hiring for likeness to past star performers (almost always male) and to their own profiles (also male).
  • Sales careers have not taken into account work-life balance, which traditionally is more important for women than men, because of how household tasks are traditionally split by families. Sales is often a department in which answering to the customer comes first, and salespeople should be available for anything that the customers may require. This poses no problem when the salesperson is fully devoted to their position, and may cause problems for those who have other priorities or needs, beyond serving the company.
  • These two effects combined have created specific male-dominated cultures in many sales departments, which have made them less attractive for good women salespeople.
  • In the discussion of these ideas we already found ways in which sales organizations and sales departments could allow women to flourish in them:

    • Introduce metrics and analytics for sales performance, to reward and promote based in objective evaluations. This is easier now than ever, because of a shift in culture within organizations towards a more analytics based management model, and also because of the increase number of digital interactions in the sales process, which are easier to measure that traditional sales processes.
    • Develop a more team-oriented approach to sales, in which responsibilities and workload can be shared so that all the members can achieve a better work-life balance. Also team-based sales is becoming more necessary as solutions become more complex, and customers require many more levels of expertise in their sales counterparts.
    • Change the culture of sales departments… which is becoming less and less helpful as newer sales paradigms are emerging.

    And this in turn led us to consider the future evolution of sales. I have already mentioned the change from a “peddling” to a more consultative model, in which women appear to perform as well as men. Many practitioner and researchers are arguing that we are living another transition to a newer sales model, which will be:

    • More complex… as solutions become more technological and customers become more complex, with many moe stakeholders in the decision making process.
    • More virtual… with videoconferencing and even AR becoming a part of the sales process.
    • More digital… besides videoconferences, suppliers are implementing customer portals, AI or programmatic sales (ABM) to interact with suppliers.
    • More data driven… as I have mentioned before, and augmented by virtuality and digitalization.

    In this new paradigm, not only the old culture in sales will need to change, but it will also have to embrace diversity, as it is the key to be able to adapt to a changing environment. In its book “The diversity bonus” Scott Page presents the idea that more diverse organizations are needed to tackle increasingly complex problems. And this may be the final reason to include more women in sales organizations. It is not just a question of social justice, but also a potential performance improvement, and the door to more diversity, not just in gender but also in other categories such as age, intelectual capabilities and ethnical origin.