Dr. Sharon Peck asked me how I thought women compared to men in sales roles. I’ve been asked this question many times. For decades, I have observed salesmen and saleswomen in the field, in seminars, and for 35 years in my own company. A broad sweeping assessment would have me say that women in sales were better at discerning the needs of their customers and attending to details and men were more focused on closing.
But that does not tell the full story. In the ideal world we would not think male or female, but only salespeople. Success in selling is success. Yet experience shows most of us that women and men bring diverse perspectives and therefore different approaches to sales.
I believe in general women and men are equally endowed with the skill, aptitude, and the drive it takes to be successful in sales. Yet women much less frequently make it to the ranks of sales leadership. This should not surprise us. Historically, men have an educational and social advantage. Women, as a force in B2B sales, are relatively new starting in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. But sales is a place, when other factors are relatively equal, where performance should speak for itself—but often the obstacles for women are subtle.
Most of us are familiar with the comparisons between the sexes in Men Are from Mars (god of war, aggressiveness) and Women from Venus (goddess of love and fertility). The latest survey from the American Management Association points to being pushy as the number one objection that customers have to salespeople. This and the shift in selling to a collaborative teaching model seems to bode well for the “feminine characteristics “, but the need for the hunter instinct in sales will always remain strong too. It really takes a balance.
As I worked with students at Wharton and Drexel, I could not help noticing that the gender gap seems to be closing. My first six sales courses at Wharton were all male and gradually, over the next decade, percentages moved to about 60% men/40% women. This narrowing of the gap should impact corporate cultures down the road and continue to broaden opportunities for women, as well as women who move up the ranks in organizations. But until then the onus is on women, organizations, and men (in that order) to create work environments in which there is room for diversity, and women and men are charged up to do their best work every day.
For women today that seems to be a more difficult charge. But they must take the lead. In sales roles, the glass ceiling for women is fairly well fractured, but the doors to management for the most part remain closed. My advice for women is know that you can succeed in whichever role you aspire to and go for it. Know your strengths and use them to the hilt. Know your weaknesses and tap into every resource available to you to learn and each day strive to make it better than the day before.
I am reminded of my women student at Wharton, when an upscale fashion house for women and men sponsored a business wardrobe day for my 3rd year graduate students. The executive greeted the men with handshakes and a robust introduction and all but ignored the women. When the women complained to me the next day, I asked why they did not approach the executive with a handshake and make their presence known. We all learned a good lesson that day. In the words of Abraham Lincoln, “The best way to predict you future is to create it.”
For both women and men, end the day with the questions what did I learn and what did I contribute and where can I go to learn more? Give first, because you will get in return. Keep a balance in life and work—they are not the same, but they can enrich each other when you maintain a balance.