Disband the Sales “Boys Club” — 3 Ways to Improve Equality, Parity, and a Level Playing Field

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MedReps, a Jackson Healthcare company, specializing in staffing for the medical industry, recently released a study of 750 sales reps with the provocative title, “The State of the Sales Industry: ‘Boys Club’ in 2019.” In their 9th annual salary survey, they found that the base salary of women was lower than men, which led to this follow-up study.

My interest was piqued, since I’ve always considered sales to be the one functional area where gender does not/could not play a role. That is, no company has a sales comp plan that specifies differences based on gender. How could women consistently be paid less in the same role(s)? It may be, though based on their survey data it wasn’t apparent, that total comp was the same for the same roles but what the data did show was women started at lower base salaries than men. The question, of course, is why?

Before becoming too bogged down in this point, let’s simply remember, what the “Boys Club” survey also found was equally confounding: 68.8% of women and 72.6% of men, state they believe their gender “positively impacts their sales career.” And, yet, 65.2% of all respondents agree that a Boys Club mentality still exists.

The survey instrument did not define what a “Boys Club Mentality” is, even though nearly two-thirds of respondents indicated it exists in their own companies. My own interpretation was that this mentality meant favoring males in assignments (territory, quota, promotions), evaluations, and opportunities. All of these contravened my own opinion of a level playing field. I decided to go looking.

Stereotypes Are Real

Three articles published by the Harvard Business Review provided research-based perspectives in my early search: “How Gender Stereotypes Kill a Woman’s Self-Confidence,” “‘Chick Beer’ for Women? Why Gender Marketing Repels More Than Sells,” and “Gender and Competition: What Companies Need to Know.”

The first article begins with the notion of “occupational sorting,” with men choosing higher-paying careers, such as computer programming. But sticking strictly to sales, what it said next was eye-opening. [Full disclosure: I’m what is currently referred to as “an old white guy” but I do have two grown daughters and feel I’m, at least, a little tuned into women’s issues.]

New research identifies one reason women might be shying away from certain professions: They lack confidence in their ability to compete in fields that men are stereotypically believed to perform more strongly in, such as science, math, and technology.


Women are also more reluctant to share their ideas in group discussions on these subjects. And even when they have talent—and are actually told they are high-achievers in these subjects—women are more likely than men to shrug off the praise and lowball their own abilities.

Upon reading this, an image came immediately to mind. I remembered a cartoon showing a pot-bellied man in a Speedo walking down the beach. His thought bubble was that he was an Adonis. Then a fit woman in a bikini, her thought bubble, that she was fat. Where does this self-deprecating self-talk for women begin and why does it persist?

For starters, I’ll suggest this is not openly talked about, nor aggressively countered in day-to-day management practices. Two women I heard from reminded me, this is both an individual responsibility and a sales manager’s.

The first of these is a senior female executive at Salesforce.com, a company on the record to promote equality, diversity and parity. Hardly a toxic or anti-female environment. Yet, this capable, experienced and successful woman told me, she has “to remind herself every day to raise her hand and speak up in meetings.” She, literally, gives herself a morning pep talk to “raise her hand.” Women of every generation would be well served to adopt her morning ritual to be brave and speak up.

To this end, at a sales leadership conference I spoke at recently, three young sales reps presented TED-type talks on why/what they appreciated about the company they work for. [If you want to know more about the competition to winnow down to these three finalists, write me for details.] One woman talked about her manager’s “encouragement” to enter the contest. She thanked her manager who was in the audience. What struck me as she spoke, which I had not put together before then, was that her manager’s encouragement gave her courage, just as enablement provides reps ability. Once recognizing this is a cloud/burden under which women operate, every manager should be more encouraging and supportive of all their reps, especially their female ones.

The article had three key findings:

  • Women are less confident than men in certain subjects, like math
  • Women discount positive feedback about their abilities
  • Women hold back on expressing ideas on ‘male topics’

The combination of these stereotypical behaviors telegraphs to the topic of this article. Women tend to be offered lower starting salaries (more on this in a bit) and they accept these more often. While no company specifies a male vs. female comp plan, companies do advertise a range of base pay for a role. Turns out, women are more likely to accept a lower starting salary, rather than negotiate for a higher one, even though they may be skilled negotiators for maintaining pricing (i.e., avoiding discounting) when they are selling.

Men tend to see themselves as fully qualified and/or reasonably so if they have 60% of a job’s stated requirements (Adonis mindset), while women often see themselves as “not ready,” if they don’t have 100% of requirements. The combination of accepting lower starting salaries, along with reticence to reach for higher roles can, and probably does, contribute to lower overall compensation and the continuance of a Boys Club mentality. Spoiler alert: It’s not just in the Boys’ heads!

Don’t Label Me!

In the second article, product branding designed to appeal to women, in fact, often failed miserably. Their research found:

People resist being categorized—or made to feel like they are unwillingly reduced to a single identity—particularly when the product they’re being nudged toward evokes a stereotype about their gender.


Suggesting that women will clamor for a product wrapped in pink packaging just because some marketer assumes that all women love pink can come across as downright insulting.


According to previous research, even stereotypes that cast people in a positive light—such as suggesting that women are kinder than men or that Asians excel in math—can trigger a negative reaction from these groups.

The take-away from this article for sales leaders, at every level, is to recognize gender but not pander to it. As with any coaching, it needs to be tailored. In fact, as we’ve presented many times before, coaching equals feedback. For feedback to be meaningful/useful it needs to meet 5 tests: 1) timely; 2) objective/consistent; 3) accurate; 4) relevant; and 5) individualized.

If you’ve heard the expression, implementing a specific sales or coaching technique by “spreading it like peanut butter”, that is, the same across all situations, you know how ineffectual this is. One size does not fit all, nor does one technique serve equally well in varied situations. And you could hardly have more varied situations than the multiple personality (e.g., introvert, extrovert, etc.) and, increasingly, gender types (e.g., male, female, non-binary, etc.) in today’s multi-generational sales teams.

Diversity today is reality. It can make managing harder but also make teams stronger. Again, the key is to avoid stereotyping and, instead, rely upon principles and values (e.g., Win/Win, transparency, etc.).

The Battle of the Sexes

The third article, which I recommend, looks at competition versus cooperation, with a series of experiments involving 236 women and men.

Interestingly, the researchers didn’t find a significant difference in performance between the cooperative and the competitive payment schemes for either men or women. “This is in contrast to previous studies,” says Fletcher. Prior research had found that men exerted extra effort and performed better than women when they were in a competitive situation, whereas women exerted similar amounts of effort whether or not they were competing.


Fletcher says that homophily—our tendency to associate and form relationships with those who are similar to us—might lead individuals to feel more comfortable and perform better on same-gender teams, whether cooperative or competitive.


“There’s a strongly held assumption that men are competitive and women aren’t, and our results show otherwise,” she says. “Men and women work together differently when they’re dependent [on each other] versus independent and when they work on stereotypically male or female tasks.”

All three of these findings point to stereotypes that do not serve men or women in sales. Yes, sales is a competitive occupation but, increasingly, collaboration and co-creation with customers and/or colleagues is part of the mix. Avoiding competition will get you nowhere, but being super-competitive may also limit how far you go. Remember the proverb: If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.

Another point that repeats here is extending one’s self beyond the comfort zone. Again, there is little new in this but it’s a lesson we keep needing to be reminded of. It is so easy to remain, to hang out, in one’s comfort zone, but the opportunities for growth and improvement lie just outside where you currently, comfortably operate.

Another female executive interviewed for this article had an interesting take on both getting outside of her comfort zone and this notion of homophily. She’s a COO in the hi-tech industry and routinely is the only woman in the room. At a recent conference in Atlanta, there were 2 other women among the 125 attendees.

In the past, she would have thought, “Wow, there are only two other people like me here.” True, there are only two other women. But there were loads, perhaps all, of the attendees that were trying to sell something to the event host (Microsoft). There were probably many who would rather have been home that evening. No doubt, there were others that were shy about meeting strangers but would welcome making new acquaintances. As it turns out, there were loads of people just like her there!

This notion of reframing to see new possibilities is key to creating new opportunities. And what is sales, if not creating new opportunities?

Conclusion

While a “Boy’s Club” may still exist, either overtly or otherwise, there are things both women and men can do to minimize the clubiness and promote the equality, parity and level playing field of dreams.

Be Transparent

When being offered a position/salary, ask if this is the same for all people in this role (e.g., SDRs, BDRs, Account Exec) and be clear on the requirements. Increasingly, companies are being transparent about, “This is the salary, these are the requirements, for everyone.” One woman said she was 40 before learning to ask/fight for money. Her take: “Girls are raised to accept what’s presented to them. Boys are taught to fight.” Again, stereotypical, but without the spin of being overly accepting or confrontational, just come from a position of confidence and transparency.

Speak Up

Give yourself a pep talk before starting out each day, reminding yourself to “raise your hand” during meetings, to speak up. The COO who talked about reframing said, “I want to hear from you. If you don’t say something in the first 10 minutes of a meeting, I’ll assume you have nothing to say.” Here’s a tip: prepare for each meeting, have something to say, and say it in a way you’re heard.

Step Outside Your Comfort Zone

Whether it’s speaking up, reframing, practicing a new skill, approaching a new prospect, spooling up your courage to try a new way is the beginning. Fortune favors the bold. We are, after all, talking about sales and, if ever there was an occupation that rewards being bold, this is it.

Clearly, and thankfully, there are differences between men and women. But when it comes to the workplace, recognizing stereotypes are not helpful, and that a transparent, encouraging culture of continuous growth is helpful, holds the key to a brighter future. Again, from the MedReps survey, more than a quarter of sales respondents stated they would consider leaving current employers if they receive an offer from a company that has proven gender parity, and 60% said they would turn down an offer if there’s evidence of a gender pay gap.

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