An overlooked dimension of diversity in tech: Why we need more women in sales
When I began my first job hunt in opportunity-filled San Francisco, sales seemed like a great entry point into the tech world. Just about every hot startup was hiring bright, ambitious young people with strong communication skills to evangelize their products. While I met the qualifications outlined in job descriptions, something in the back of my mind kept telling me that maybe I wasn’t cut out for sales. I’ve since heard this concern echoed by many other women looking to start their tech careers: “I just don’t think I’m very sales-y.”
Self-doubt only grew as I continued my search. Sales job descriptions are littered with phrases like “shark,” “sports-minded,” “hunter mentality.” During interviews, more than one company explained their strong preference for college athletes, which I wasn’t, and pointedly asked for examples of times I’ve had to compete; I didn’t exactly feel set up for success. Once you’re actually in the door, it doesn’t necessarily get better. I’ve heard a number of stories about sales cultures ranging from the innocuous, like regular boys’ trips to the golf course, to the overtly offensive, like porn at the office or private chat rooms for discussing and rating female employees.
Let’s face it, sales is a male-dominated field that has long favored stereotypically “male” characteristics like assertiveness, aggressiveness, and outward competitiveness. Yet studies have shown that when women exhibit these characteristics in the workplace, they are perceived negatively, an effect not seen in men. It’s not surprising that many women choose to shy away from a field that values these qualities, as we’ve been conditioned to refrain from exhibiting them.
The notion that a good salesperson has to be pushy, aggressive, and have a don’t-take-no-for-an-answer mentality not only implicitly excludes many women, but it’s also dated and bad for business, especially in tech sales.
For typical SaaS companies, it takes at least a year to recover the cost to acquire a given customer. You can’t afford to sell bad deals where you reap the benefit upfront but the customer is likely to churn a year later. Your reputation is everything in a world where buyers have access to information and inform themselves nearly 60% of the way through the sales cycle. Profitable tech sales is about building trust and loyalty through long-standing customer relationships. As a sales professional, you should be not only knowledgeable about your product, but also an expert, who can act as a trusted advisor, as well as an internal advocate for your client.
Relationship-building, fostering trust, listening, responding thoughtfully, attention to detail, communication: these are all qualities found in exceptional sales reps and are also qualities more commonly associated with, and inclusive of, women. If this were the common perception of the modern salesperson, I’m betting more women would think themselves a good fit for sales and re-consider the career path they may have previously “leaned out” of.
And if you’re a woman in or considering sales, there’s another reason sales is a smart career choice. Currently, diversity in tech is an extremely hot topic. There is much discussion about barriers women face to advancement, and many studies point to a similar diagnosis: men are perceived, whether consciously or unconsciously, as more capable than women in professional settings. This is why, a sales career can be advantageous for high-achieving, ambitious women: the metrics of success in sales are relatively objective. A rep’s monthly or quarterly performance is not a matter of opinion. There is a leaderboard. With names. And numbers. Not to say, of course, that sales is a perfect meritocracy. Like any job, your successes can be affected by factors outside of your control, like the availability of mentors. But in sales, I would argue, you are less vulnerable to the subjectivity that prevents professional advancement for so many women.
Like in any job, your environment will determine whether or not you feel supported, respected, and perceived as an equal. I feel incredibly lucky at Lever — I am a part of a team of amazing women and men, and examples of strong female leadership are ever-present in my CEO, my manager, and many others. As a company, we do so many things right to create a diverse and inclusive workplace (or D&I as we call it), and given that we’re building the next-generation enterprise product to help companies hire and grow more strategically, it’s imperative we get it right from the inside out. And although Lever is fairly gender-balanced, both in terms of headcount and leadership, our sales team has by far the most catching up to do.
So, to all the women out there either already in tech or looking to break in: if you’ve ever doubted yourself for not being “sales-y” enough, think again. The world of sales needs a shake up and we would all benefit from your skills and leadership qualities. There are organizations out there who believe in building inclusive sales cultures not only because it’s the right thing to do, but also because it’s a smart business move. As the face of tech changes, inevitably sales will follow, and I can’t wait to see what the introduction of fresh perspectives, in the form of more gender balance and otherwise, will bring to our profession.