Women in Sales: Common Challenges and Common Sense Solutions

Fortunately, most high-performing companies have moved beyond the days when overt discrimination was tolerated; they rightly base hiring and promotion on business performance. These companies are also discovering that placing women into sales leadership roles is good for business and critical for paving the way for them to ascent into the highest executive ranks. However, the “invisible” challenge of male leaders continuing to hire in their own image still persists as an obstacle to building diverse leadership teams.

For example, 85 women get promotions for every 100 promotions given to men. This statistic accounts for promotions across all industries, including sales. In fact, women are underrepresented in B2B sales across all sectors. This is troubling on its own but becomes even more so when considering that women in sales outperform men by 8% but are paid 7% less.

As a woman in sales, you likely already know what it feels like to work in the industry. You’ve probably faced a series of obstacles and challenges that are rooted in gender-based biases. Although it’s both comforting and disheartening, you aren’t alone in these challenges. This piece will outline common challenges women face in sales and give strategies for dealing with and overcoming these issues to help you reach your full potential.

1. Unconscious Bias

Although businesses have made strides in recognizing matters of diversity, equity, and inclusion in the workplace, one of the remaining challenges that women in sales face comes from their coworkers’ unconscious biases. Of these implicit biases, women report that the most common stereotypes they face are coworkers underestimating or failing to understand the extent of their knowledge and skills and being perceived as weak.

As mentioned above, businesses have made strides to understand and address these issues in the workplace. However, unconscious biases are exactly that – unconscious. Those perpetuating them aren’t aware that they hold these beliefs and even less so that they’re reinforcing harmful stereotypes that significantly impact the job performance of their peers. In fact, one in four men in sales say that women don’t experience any sort of bias in the workplace.

When it comes to dealing with these challenges, it shouldn’t be your responsibility to educate others. That can get tiring and exhausting, and it’s not the job you’ve been paid to do. Therefore, enlisting the help of a sponsor is an approach worth considering. As opposed to a mentor, a sponsor is an avowed supporter willing to use his or her connections and political capital to help advance your career. This sponsor can be a former manager that you’ve had a productive relationship with, or simply a person within your organization that you know will champion your skills and abilities and fight for your well-being whenever necessary.

2. Access To Opportunities for Growth

A survey conducted by CNBC found that 54% of women feel they’re very ambitious regarding their career and career growth, and 15% of women aged 18-44 expect to be in C-Suite positions in the next ten years. Despite this ambition and desire to succeed, only 6% of CEOs in top companies are women. Women are also often left out of team activities and invited on business trips, which makes it harder to develop relationships with the people and teams that may provide opportunities for future growth and development.

Facing this reality can be rough – no matter how much you believe in yourself and know that you deserve promotions and greater opportunities, statistics show that women always need to work harder to gain recognition. It doesn’t help that 91% of men (in comparison to 50% of women) believe that female sales professionals have access to the same opportunities as them.  

You know more than anyone that you’re qualified and able to bring your teams success. It’s easier said than done, but putting yourself out and applying for the jobs you know you can do and you know you deserve can be a valuable strategy. This can be tough, especially if it seems like it won’t be well received. But having an ally or sponsor that will support you through situations where you might need to venture out of your comfort zone can help when it comes to being exposed to these opportunities and putting yourself in a position to receive them.

3. Leveraging Internal and External Networks

Since women are already left out of team activities and valuable networking events, having the opportunity to develop connections — internally and externally — is difficult. Just as it’s difficult to create these relationships, it becomes even more challenging to leverage the connections you have as a means of increasing your success. For example, maybe you don’t feel like you deserve to have an executive from an old workplace put in a good word for you, or you fear that others will think you’re too pushy or assertive by seeking help from others to get what you deserve.

A possible solution to this can be to focus on developing relationships with other women, both within and outside your organization. There are likely incredible senior-positioned women that you have proximity to and, while they may not work with you directly, it’s worth the effort to forge relationships with them to develop a support system. In most industries, there are also several organizations dedicated to uplifting women and giving them the resources and assistance they need to create a support system.

4. Engaging With Clients

In sales, a certain level of entertainment is beneficial to fostering relationships with your customers. However, there seems to be a general notion that male colleagues have an advantage when it comes to entertaining clients, hence the all too common trope of inviting a prospect to play golf with the coal of turning them into a paying customer by the time they reach the last hole. This old boy mentality often keeps women out of engaging client relationships, which is another challenge that arises because of unconscious biases and in turn, affects access to growth opportunities and creating networks of support. However, client engagement isn’t about golf, and women are just as successful, if not more, than in these scenarios.

Case in point; 86% of women meet quotas in comparison to 78% of men. However quotas are defined by a business, sales don’t close without client interaction. This must mean that, somewhere along the way, capable women engage with clients and foster working relationships that close deals, right?

5. Self-Confidence

At the end of the day, a significant challenge that women in sales face is a matter of confidence — or lack of it. These feelings of inadequacy, often referred to as impostor syndrome, may be preventing you from reaching your greatest potential. Although it may not seem like it, the feeling of being an outsider is a natural one, and your male colleagues may experience it as well. But, because men typically have a higher risk tolerance than women, they power through these feelings.

These emotions can become even stronger when coupled with societal norms and standards of behavior that have historically told women that they’re not meant to hold high positions. While there are various ways to combat impostor syndrome, you are where you are because you’re capable. Regardless of whether you’ve asked mentors to vouch for your abilities or you’ve risen through the ranks on your own if you weren’t good at your job you wouldn’t be there.

Another strategy to consider is to let go of notions of perfectionism. After all, nobody does anything perfectly, so holding yourself to these standards is likely impacting your productivity and preventing you from reaching your full potential. As mentioned before, you’re not alone in these feelings. Consider reaching out to a trusted colleague or mentor and have honest conversations about how you’re feeling, and recognize that asking for guidance when you feel stuck isn’t a sign of weakness, in fact, it’s the opposite.

6. Pay Gap

Women, regardless of industry, are paid less than their male counterparts. To be exact, they earn 82¢ to each dollar that men earn, and this number gets even smaller for women of color. In addition to that, the U.S. sales industry has the second-highest pay gap, according to the 2018 census. Women in direct sales roles earn 22% less than men, and this number increases to 25% for women in sales leadership positions.

While pay can affect your livelihood and how you provide for yourself and your family, it doesn’t feel good to know that you’re not making nearly as much as your coworkers for doing the same job. Unfortunately, this challenge is one of the most difficult on this list to tackle. This inequality has been around forever and is so systemic that it’s difficult for a single person in their workplace to lead the change that needs to happen. However, leveraging all of the above tips to combat the challenges that women in sales face can help initiate a change within your own workplace — pushing back against impostor syndrome and recognizing your worth, and enlisting the help of colleagues and mentors who believe in you and fight for you are all steps in the right direction.

Rising Above These Challenges

If you’re already doubting yourself, it may feel like all of these challenges are your own fault, but they’re not. They exist because of systems of power that people have been pushing back against for years, and they’re also affecting women in other industries all across the world.

The most crucial factor to keep in mind as you make your mark within your organization and in the sales world as a whole is that you’re there because you have the skills to be successful at your job and you deserve to be where you are.

Editor’s Note: This post previously appeared in Huffington Post and was republished with permission in 2017. It was then updated by HubSpot staff in December 2020 for comprehensiveness and freshness.