Women represent 39% of the sales workforce. This percentage has only increased by 3% over the past decade. Not surprisingly, the number decreases as seniority increases, with the lowest percentage of women represented in executive positions. Only 21% of vice presidents in sales are female.
There are many cultural and historical reasons for this imbalance, but as an experienced saleswoman, I can also tell you that part of the problem is how the career is perceived. Over the years I’ve encountered many preconceived notions that are damaging and are a deterrent and yet are utterly false.
Here is my list of the top ten myths I hear about a job I’ve enjoyed for over 20 years.
#1 Men only buy from men
When it comes to sales at least, it is no longer a “man’s world”. It was in the sixties, seventies, and even the eighties, and it applied across many industries and plenty of professions. I am reading What Happened, Hilary Clinton’s memoir about her experience as the Democratic Party’s nominee for President of the US. Early in the book, she describes her first years as a lawyer when she was the only female lawyer in her entire state. Thankfully this is no longer the case. Today, men and women buy from sales professionals who are well prepared, take the time to understand the issues and business concerns of the buyer, know their product or service intimately and can demonstrate the value and impact the solution they sell will deliver. Buyers look for these traits regardless of the gender of the seller.
#2 Women in sales have to be good looking
I refer you again to number one, buyers are interested in salespeople who are competent and confident, and their gender or looks do not matter. Regardless of gender, we all should look and behave professionally. No one needs to have a “cat-walk look” to succeed in sales. This rule applies to both men and women. People make their purchasing decisions based on the value of the product or service and because of the relationship and trust they have in the salesperson.
#3 Sales usually involves a lot of traveling. That doesn’t exactly fit with a family.
Yes, sales usually will involve some travel. Salespeople spend quite a bit of time commuting from meeting to meeting, from one conference to another. However, these are the times we live in, and many other professions also involve copious amounts of travel. I see this as the need to be flexible if you want to pursue a career. It’s about managing the balance between our professional and personal life which I admit isn’t always easy, but it’s worth the effort. I do think change is happening. Nowadays many men participate in household chores and take responsibility for assisting with any childcare issues. I see this sharing of duties and responsibilities as both parents working together as part of a team. A team I am a much happier member of when I am doing what I love for a living.
Furthermore, there is quite a bit of flexibility around where and when a salesperson works. Many of my colleagues work from home thereby eliminating the need to spend time commuting to and from an office. Plus, the hours are not usually the traditional 9-5, which means work schedules can integrate smoothly with a child’s school timetable.
# 4 Salespeople are pushy and aggressive. Women are not.
I would never buy from a pushy or aggressive salesperson. Would you? In truth, that type of sales approach makes me think of the ‘door to door’ selling of the past, and one I only ever saw in the movies😉. In the real world, to succeed in sales, you need to be process-driven, strategic, knowledgeable, competent, confident and humble and all at the same time. It’s about investing time in your research and most importantly building trust – the only foundation for a good and longstanding relationship with your customers.
#5 Technical and Engineering sales is a job best suited to a man
Everyone can learn nearly any skill. It may take a while, but with patience and access to resources like eLearning each of us has the potential to acquire the knowledge and expertise necessary to have meaningful conversations on any subject. I also believe that selling is a team sport, and it is essential to build your team by populating it with people with different expertise who can share and offer advice in areas that you have little or no experience or knowledge.
#6 Sales means lots of entertaining clients and women don’t want to do that with male customers
I am not sure this one is even worth addressing. Yes, there are times which will call for a meal with a long-standing customer, but it is rare and only happens once the trust already exists. In my years I’ve never had to sit down to dinner with a customer whom I felt uncomfortable with, and I would advise that no one should have to do that.
#7 Men are more confident than women
In my experience, there is no such distinction. If you prepare, you feel confident regardless of gender. However, all too often women do feel less assured than their male counterparts. While there are many reasons for this, I encourage everyone – male and female – to consider the following: a study by Cornell University found that men overestimate their abilities and performance, while women underestimate both. In fact, their actual performance does not differ in quality or quantity.
#8 Men can manage their stress and work under pressure better than women
The truth is that once again these preconceptions are untrue. Research from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem suggests that the ability to cope with stress is in part related to genetic and gender differences but that women appear to have the edge in dealing with stressful conditions.
#9 Sales is all about quotas and men are better with numbers.
Are we seriously still saying that boys are better in maths and girls in language? Many studies prove there are no such differences. The only difference is the perception society had about this difference, and it’s a very damaging view. A new study suggests that men aren’t better at science, they just think they are – and that makes all the difference.
#10 Salesmen take risks and aren’t afraid of making mistakes.
Aren’t we all afraid of our mistakes and failures regardless of gender? Aren’t we all concerned about what others will think if we fail? I see this as a human question rather than a gender one, and it has to do with personality above all else. I am confident that all of us females are aware that taking a risk, as long as we learn from it and improve, is a good thing. Interestingly, when thinking about this point and doing some reading, I came across many interesting TEDx Talks videos on this topic – ‘risk-taking / mistake-making’ – many of which (if not the best ones!) were delivered by female readers😊.
Here’s to more women getting involved in sales.
If you have any questions, please contact me . I’m happy to answer any I can.
Agata Nowakowska is the Area Sales VP UK, Skillsoft EMEA.