Despite positive changes, the sales sector is still heavily influenced by male figures. How can we change the mindset for an equal future, and who are the people leading the charge? Rana Khayal takes up the story.
Let’s journey back to the 1950s. Such a time would offer up sayings like, “women in the workplace… the audacity of it” and no one would even bat an eye. That was less than 70 years ago.
Women at work popularised in the late 1940s after World War II saw the majority of men go off to fight. The economy needed to continue ticking along, and women stepped up. What followed was a seismic shift that changed the working landscape.
Back to the Future
Fast forward to present day, and the attitude towards women in the workplace has changed significantly. Social and political views generally hold working women in a positive light. Yet that’s not to say problems don’t still exist. It is just less overt.
The gender bias in the tech industry is well documented. But perhaps the original signifier for sexism at work was born in the sales world. Things have since improved, but even in 2018, it is still a field with ideals dominated by the male mind.
It is easy to see how such concepts were born. Sales are often viewed as an assertive, sometimes aggressive practice. Stereotypes point to a boisterous salesperson (often a man) using charm and persistence to coerce someone into buying a product or service.
Yet women are often castigated for expressing these same qualities. They are seen as overcompensating or not acting in a respectable manner. It is a no-win situation.
You only need to think of Don Draper in Mad Men, Leonardo Dicaprio’s portrayal of Jordan Belfort in Wolf of Wall Street, or Jerry Maguire, to visualise the poster salesperson. Suits, ties - even the clothing items associated with the industry are for men.
The language of gender
The culture of sales is soaked in male-ridden clichés and idioms. Look at select job adverts for sales reps and it’s not uncommon to see words like ‘sales rockstar’ or ‘ninja’ bandied about. Experts argue this type of language is gender bias and discourages women from applying for roles.
That isn’t to say that such words were inherently designed to deter women from sales. Instead, it is part of a deeper rooted culture that favours men. Gender-bias language isn’t solely reserved for job adverts; it’s prevalent in internal communications and industry marketing collateral.
Read sales articles by male industry experts, and it’s not uncommon to find them referring to salespeople as ‘salesmen’ or ‘sales guys’. Again, this doesn’t mean they are consciously sexist, but it does point to an industry struggling to break free from its old-fashioned ways.
Finding focus with statistics
A survey by PayScale, the online salary database, looked at gender trends in a variety of industries. Their findings revealed 55 percent of sales reps were women, compared to 45 percent of men. Taking those figures at face value would lead you to believe the industry doesn’t have a problem.
Such findings show that a lack of female hires in sales isn’t the issue; it’s how they are treated once they get through the door where problems arise. Combining all workforces, women earn around 83 percent of what men do.
The sales industry is even worse for disparity in pay. Even with 10 percent more women in the field, men still earn up to 27 percent more than their female counterparts.
A push for change
Despite these issues, which we can’t simply sweep under the rug, there are positives to take. Many women have pushed for change and have been successful in doing so. WISA (Women in Sales Awards) started in 2013 and encourages diversity for women in a field dominated by men.
Their annual award show highlights the positive impression women are making in the sales industry. WISA is raising awareness about a problem that is still very much alive, turning their attention to getting more women on board-level roles within companies.
Other female figures in the sales industry like Barbara Giamanco and Nancy Nardin have helped to raise the profile of women. They have shown themselves as an example to which others can feel inspired.
No time like the present
Now is a better time than ever to look at issues around gender. Towards the back end of last year, several women went public with sexual harassment claims against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein. What followed was an outpouring of even more claims, from varying sectors including corporate and academia.
It turns out regular workforces resemble Hollywood more than we cared to admit. The sales industry is no different. While none of the major allegations came directly from sales positions, it would be naive to suggest sexual harassment doesn’t exist in the field.
Unequal pay and sexist language might seem relatively tame in comparison to harassment. But neglecting these issues gives validation to the next harasser. The unevenness of pay and power puts men in a position where they control the role of women in the workplace.
The more people prepared to vocalise the problems across all industries will force us to continue having these uncomfortable, yet necessary, conversations.
A better future
The talk about sexism and harassment is clawing at the door of the mainstream. Where we go from here will shape the mind set for future generations of women. Do we enable them to be the best version of themselves without fear of mistreatment? Or do we turn a blind eye?
The sales industry has evolved over the last 50 years. The future looks brighter thanks to hardworking women asserting their quality in a field as ruthless as sales. But there are still hurdles to cross and barriers to break before achieving complete equality.
Enough women have disrupted the rhythm drummed up by their experiences in sales. By bringing the conversations about gender discrimination into the cultural lexicon, a better future is within reaching distance. Let’s make sure we grab it with both hands.
Bio: Rana Khayal
Rana Khayal is the Head of Partnerships & Business Development at noCRM.io (http://nocrm.io), a lead management software company. During her time in the sales and marketing field, she has specialised in SaaS solutions for corporate companies. She also has an MA in marketing.