Women in Sales Can Meet the Challenges

Only 3 percent of Fortune 500 companies are led by women. The challenges women face in sales need to be identified and overcome.

Unconscious bias 

Most companies do not practice or condone discrimination against women, but men in leadership tend to promote men "in their own image." A McKinsey study found that sales experience is key for employees seeking “line jobs” — the jobs with profit and loss accountability — that are the pathway to the top. Having a male sponsor is one of the best ways to eliminate unconscious bias. While women mentors are valuable, senior male colleagues can use connections and political capital to help you advance. Do not wait for a company sponsorship program to materialize. Be proactive and do your own networking. A former manager is a good place to start.

Connecting with customers socially

Make time to socialize with women in other companies, particularly your clients and other senior women in customer firms. This helps to build a broader base through relationships outside of the office. Most industries have women's organizations that foster solid business connections. Make these meetings a key item on your social agenda.

Entertaining male clients 

The myth remains that male colleagues have an advantage when it comes to entertaining customers -- and entertaining to keep them engaged is an important part of the job. Women are welcomed on golf courses; restaurants do not shut the door in women's faces. If you still feel awkward about picking up the tab, a quiet word to the waiter will assure you are discreetly handed the bill.

Leadership style 

Women are still stereotyped as being "hysterical" when they are enthusiastic about a project or product. The right word is "passionate" as all successful salespeople need to be. The way to avoid the stereotype is to study the lead person in the room. This person sets the tone, the pace, and the atmosphere. How do they do it? Figure it out and then follow their lead. You may speak softly, but your words should carry a punch.

Join the conversation

Men have been talking about sports since they could toddle. Do not try to pretend you know how to talk about sports unless you have four brothers and grew up on a diet of sports at every meal. Instead, learn how to change the conversation. A successful woman executive found herself surrounded by heated Superbowl discussions. She asked, "Have you seen the latest Little Theater production?" She reports many "deer in the headlights" looks, but her question changed the landscape, putting her in the center.

Know your value

The American Association of University Women (AAUW) found that one-third of the gender pay gap cannot be explained by profession or years on the job -- suggesting that gender is a major factor. Find the pay range of your job and if you are in the ballpark. PayScale and Glassdoor are great online resources. Job coaches urge women to "do the math." Calculate what you did for the company last year in actual dollars. Did you bring in new clients who will pay off down the road? Add that. And then, ask. Remember that progress in closing the gender gap in salary has been slow and has stagnated in the past few years. Pay equity is good business, but to get a raise, you really must ask.

But first, it helps to talk yourself up to senior employees. The causal question: how are you? can be answered with a mini self-promo of your latest success -- and be sure to praise your boss's contribution. Timing is important, so take advantage of a win. The best time to ask for a raise or promotion is after you brought in a new client or closed a deal.

Be a leader

As you advance in the company, do not neglect the women behind you. Make sure they have equal opportunities and are receiving equal pay. You will help create a corporate climate that includes women at every level. It is not just the right thing to do; it is good business.