Blog post

Women In Sales – A Missed Opportunity?

By Hank Barnes | July 11, 2017 | 9 Comments

go-to-marketFuture of Sales

Two weeks ago, I spent time at CEB (now Gartner) with a group of sales and marketing thought leaders that participated in the #CEBInfluencers program.   One of the most interesting discussions centered around the issue of diversity in sales, specifically regarding women.  The discussion was lead by Victoria Koval (CEB-Now Gartner) and Lori Richardson.  Lori is also the president of WOMEN Sales Pros.

Diversity is an interesting, sometimes challenging discussion and one, to be very honest, that I don’t think about a lot (but after the discussion with Victoria and Lori, that is changing).  I’m not a hiring manager, but can see how unconscious biases and preferences can lead to an awful lot of sameness.

Intuitively, I know that if you get too many people with the exact same thought processes and perspectives working together you fall into traps.  You lose creativity.  You miss opportunities.  I see this in my own role as an analyst.  One of the biggest sources of value that I, and other analysts, bring to clients is a fresh, different perspective.    As Brent Adamson said in the meeting, “Diversity of thought generates better results.”

But while we know intuitively that this makes sense, our actions don’t always match.  As you look across your organization and teams, what is the distribution?   Do you have a diverse set of backgrounds and perspectives?  Or is the group remarkably similar.   I suspect that, in most cases, including my own, some additional diversity could be a benefit.

One area to think about for diversity is around women.   There has been a recent focus on Women in Technology.  At our recent Gartner Tech Growth and Innovation Conference, we held a special Women in Technology lunch and conducted a Facebook Live session afterwards.   The discussion focused on leadership, education, career options, and more.  Helping people learn the opportunities in different fields is a great thing, and helping them learn how to excel and overcome challenges is even better.

But let’s look at a more specific situation–Women in Sales.   At the #CEBInfluencers meeting, Victoria shared the infographic you can find below that had some compelling information in it.  You can read it all easily in the graphic, but let me highlight a few things:

  • 35% of Sales Managers struggle to find quality candidates, and yet women are under represented in sales as a whole (but not in the population)
  • Only 19% of sales leaders are women (2nd highest gender equity gap)

Looking at these stats alone, you might acknowledge the issues, but could put it off by saying “We need to produce results, that matters more than diversity.”  And this is where the data gets more interesting:

  • A slightly higher percentage of women in sales make quota than men
  • Women are paid less than men
  • Women stay in roles longer than men

and the kicker

  • Organizations with high levels of gender diversity outperform their counterparts.

So, the data indicates the potential for a higher likelihood of attaining quota and (potentially and probably unfairly) paying less for it–and using it as a component of  outperforming the competition.   That’s just good business (particularly if you then compensate the women fairly–you still win).    And as sales continues to evolve, the need for different perspectives, skills, and customer-centric approaches only grows.   It’s a great time to bring more diversity to your teams.

But the key question is how do you get there.   Breaking down subconscious biases and preferences is hard.  In some cases, it might be mandated (Jill Konrath, another participant in the panel, was hired by Xerox for sales only because the government forced them to!).

I don’t really have an answer to it, but Lori had a fantastic suggestion.  She mentioned that as some groups try to explore gender diversity, they make a point to make sure that a woman is part of the interview group.   The problem with this is that one person is immediately an outlier.   Her suggestion–make sure you have at least two women as part of the group.  Then the outlier issue diminishes.  Lori mentioned that information was based on research by Stefanie K. Johnson, David R. Heckman, and Elsa T. Chan at the University of Colorado.  More details on that can be found in this HBR article.

I’m sure there are other approaches (feel free to share in the comments) to make this shift.  But whether it be women in sales, in technology, or in the ranks of analysts (yes, we need to improve on this too), a conscious effort to increase the mix is not only right morally, but it is just good business.

Here is the infographic. You can get more information on the CEB research here (registration required). And to learn more, or become part of the effort to expand the role of women in sales, regularly visit the WOMEN Sales Pros site.   They will be providing much more coverage and information on this topic there in the coming weeks and months.

CEB172933 IG Women in Sales FINAL


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  • Hank, thank you for bringing up this rarely talked about but important topic. It was fantastic to have the discussion we did and at WOMEN Sales Pros we will continue its focus.

  • Robert Hampton says:

    Implicit bias in all forms hinders sustainable growth. Great to see this coming from a man with strong credentials.

  • Annie Matthews says:

    We can’t talk about the need for diversity within organizations enough. Critical for growth, collaboration and for pairing the right sales pros with the right territories and opportunities. Women in sales functions, all the way up to leadership, has to become the norm. Great research!

  • Linda Kern says:

    This is a great article, thanks Hank. Let’s keep the discussion going, it’s necessary for women in sales, and for the organizations that they can represent in their own unique selling style.

  • Great article…the stats mirror my own experience. As a sales leader, I have always achieved better results when my team was more diverse. Thanks for the thoughtful article Hank.

  • Evan Miller says:

    This echoes my experience. The well-documented tendency of men to bluster and posture undermines trust, the key ingredient in the sales relationship. Our entire business environment is geared to reward bluster and posturing. Bluster *seems* to work in a short term relationship, but quiet confidence, honesty and execution is what builds trust over the long haul – which is what B2B technology sales are.

    That said, I wish you had come out even stronger in favor of equal pay for equal work. It is too easy to miss the parenthetical comments in this paragraph and get the sense that it’s good business to underpay women. Here is the paragraph without the parenthetical comments, and it is well, pretty bad:

    “So, the data indicates the potential for a higher likelihood of attaining quota and paying less for it–and using it as a component of outperforming the competition. That’s just good business.”

    • Hank Barnes says:

      Evan, you make a good point. Let me give my added perspective. I do believe in equal pay for equal work, but there is also a reality, independent of any gender (or other) bias. Not everyone in the same job gets paid the same regardless of performance. There are factors like experience, initial pay levels, and, yes, negotiation skills that impact compensation.

      It would be great if everything was truly performance based and nothing else. If the facts in this research are driven by purposefully paying someone less because they are a woman, that is a problem. If the myriad of factors result in that, then it may be unavoidable.

      But, if I as a leader, noticed this. I would want to correct it wherever possible.

      Thank you for pointing that out….

  • Jyoti Sahoo says:

    Being a woman, I feel so proud. It’s not about feminism, it’s about equality.

  • Rebecca Sherrill says:

    Most effective method I have seen is to utilize a behavioral assessment tool which is scrubbed of gender bias. We took this approach in building an Early Talent Sales Academy and watched the young women zoom and bust quota. Highly recommend it.