Gender Bias in Sales and What We Can Do About It

By Shelley Cernel

Gender Bias in Sales and What We Can Do About It

“Gender bias” is by no means a new phenomenon. We have been cognizant of this problem and dealing with it for years. And high-profile cases, such as with Uber and Google, keep the gender issue top-of-mind. Yet women still struggle to work their way up the corporate ladder. While women are gaining traction in the industry, they are still drastically under-represented, particularly in upper-level positions. And when they are able to make the climb, they often find themselves working twice as hard just to prove themselves and encountering double standards along the way.

More women graduate from college than men, and women are the breadwinners in 50% of American households. So why do these successes not carry through to the sales floor?

Let’s take a look at three causes for gender bias in sales and what we can do to drive change.

1) Unconscious Bias

The Problem: While overt gender bias may no longer be as common as it once was, unconscious bias (based on social and cultural upbringing) can shape the way decisions are made on a daily basis. A lot of times people may not even be aware that they are being sexist. We unconsciously surround ourselves with people who look and think like us and come from a similar background because it makes us feel more comfortable and secure. From an evolution standpoint, these biases are key to survival, enabling us to quickly make key decisions. But in business, these biases can be costly. For example, because many of the people in management and hiring positions are men, they will tend to hire other men.

And this thinking is not just coming from the male side of the gender spectrum. Women too have been ingrained about expectations of workplace roles. The ‘imposter syndrome’ is a result of this thinking, where women feel as if they aren’t qualified to be in higher-level roles. Such ingrained beliefs can lead to women missing key opportunities that would help them break into the upper ranks.

The Solution: Learn how to recognize bias and make efforts to drive change. For example, remove the gender factor from the equation. When making hiring decisions, look at gender-neutral resumes and make decisions based on experience and qualifications. When making decisions about promotions and raises, look at actual performance – not just perceived potential. Men are in a unique position to help advance their female coworkers because they have spent the most time in the more senior roles. As such, they are better equipped to recognize when exclusive activities are occurring and can appropriately mentor and advise.

2) Industry Stigmas

The Problem: The sales industry has traditionally been a male-dominated field. Outings, team building activities, and customer engagement events often revolve around watching a game, playing sports (golfing!), cars, or drinking – areas where women don’t always feel comfortable. This “boy’s club” mentality makes it difficult for women to gain respect or fit in. And this male bonding is often when valuable information about future job openings and career opportunities is shared.

The idea of “this is how things have always been”, coupled with a macho mentality, affects the way that men see women in the workplace and even, to an extent, the way that women see themselves. And it often feels as if women just can’t win. Consider the following common stereotypes: Where men are seen as ‘assertive’, women are viewed as ‘bossy’. Men who speak up and talk a lot are ‘confident’, but women who have a lot to say are ‘incompetent’ and ‘have a tone’. Working mothers are criticized for being irresponsible parents, whereas working fathers are praised for caring for their families. When men show anger, it’s perceived as strength; when women exhibit anger, they are perceived as being emotional and out of control.

The Solution: Both men and women should be recognizing and challenging these stereotypes. When you see it happening, call it out. Instead of drinks at a sports bar after work, consider a lunch meeting. If you are selling to a group of decision-makers, address all buyers – not just the males. And try to eliminate the macho male activities in the office (that “Hey, Buddy!” to the CEO and those good-natured slaps on the back).

3) Corporate Culture

The Problem: While gender bias may not be overt, there are still often subtle undertones in the workplace that can be harmful to the success of women. This could include asking women to take notes in a meeting or fetch the coffee, talking over females in a meeting or ignoring them completely, addressing a group of women as “girls”, expecting the women to plan the office parties and decorate for the holidays, or neglecting to shake their hands in greeting. And of course one of the biggest issues is unequal compensation. A survey from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics found that the largest wage gap between men and women occurs in the sales industry (behind nine other key industries), with women earning 64.4 cents per every dollar a man earns.

The Solution: Everybody needs to feel as if they are part of the team and that they aren’t being unfairly held back – everybody needs to have a seat at the table and a voice. Work to create a culture of collaboration – not competition – where all, regardless of gender, feel safe and included. These efforts will be felt internally with your sellers (and other employees), but also externally with your buyers.

While the company may take a stand against gender bias, it can take longer to see the changes in action. Transforming a corporate culture can’t just be a top-down initiative. Leadership needs to set the tone and direction and model appropriate behavior, but successfully creating a gender-inclusive culture requires support from bottom-up as well. And it should go without saying that women and men should be compensated equally and fairly

Lastly, women can’t just sit around and wait for change to happen. They need to take an active role in helping to create the culture that they want to be a part of. Speak up when you feel disrespected. Initiate a conversation about change. Participate in key opportunities that advance equality. These seemingly small steps can go a long way in driving lasting change.

Gender diversity helps to create a pipeline of strong talent, building a powerful and successful sales organization. A McKinsey & Company study found that companies with gender diverse leadership outperform others financially by 15%. Additionally, they attract better talent, have longer employee retention, attain higher quota, and are viewed more positively by buyers. Lastly, women bring tremendous value to the sales organization. Along with offering a wealth of knowledge, experience, and leadership to the sales team, an HBR study found that females significantly outperform males in 12 of 16 key leadership competencies, including “taking initiative” and “driving for results”.

There’s no better time than now for organizations to make sure they are cultivating their greatest under-utilized asset: women in sales. To learn more about the challenges women face in sales and their tips for success, hear real women share their success stories!

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