Leadership Matters

Perspectives on the key issues impacting senior leaders and their organizations
May 15, 2018

Women in Sales Leadership: How to Help Close the Gender Gap

Despite growing calls for gender diversity in leadership, progress has been decidedly mixed. In particular, sales is one area where women have not made as much headway as in other functions. According to a report by Grant Thornton, women held only six percent of sales director roles in 2017 — by comparison, 23 percent of human resources directors were women. McKinsey & Company’s research shows that women tend to hold roles in support functions such as legal and HR and are underrepresented in positions with P&L responsibility. By the time women reach the SVP level, they hold only 21% of line roles. Many of our clients have turned to us to help move the needle in this area. We work on more than 300 sales leader searches each year and gender diversity has become a central component of the search criteria for a growing number of organizations.


In addition to increasing the representation of women in sales through our diverse candidate slates, we also want to ensure women who are currently in these roles succeed. With that in mind, we were proud to join McKinsey & Company in hosting an event to help connect women in the sales function to talk about the barriers they face and practical ways to overcome them. Kirsten Kliphouse, senior vice president and general manager of North America commercial sales at RedHat, and Hilarie Koplow-McAdams, venture partner at New Enterprise Associates and former president of New Relic and former president of global sales at Salesforce, led the inspirational conversation. Here are some of our top takeaways:


1. Leaders need to set the tone at the top. Evidence shows that increasing diversity requires clear and consistent support from the CEO and senior management. One challenge is that companies and senior leaders believe they demonstrate a commitment to gender diversity, but their employees often have a very different perception. McKinsey & Company reports that while 90 percent of companies say they prioritize gender diversity, only 42 percent of employees think that is the case. Without tangible support at every level of the organization, long-ingrained biases can go unchallenged. Attendees shared their personal experiences with gender bias in the workplace, which included comments about not promoting women because of the likelihood of losing them to maternity leave and an accusation that a woman’s husband was really the one doing her work.


Fortunately, the overall sentiment is that positive changes are taking place within the function. Rather than offering well-intentioned work/life balance programs that can inadvertently place women outside the “norm,” some senior leaders have begun to create workplaces that are flexible about how and where work is performed — for everybody. To continue the shift, organizations should use a structured assessment approach that focuses on specific capabilities to help remove biases that disadvantage women or undervalue their abilities. (Learn more about what leaders and organizations can do to improve the representation of women in McKinsey & Company’s comprehensive Women in the Workplace 2017 study.)


Spencer Stuart and McKinsey & Company Sales Leader Forum

(From right: Michael Dickstein, Mitra Mahdavian, Hilarie Koplow-McAdams and Kirsten Kliphouse.)


2. Women may need to work harder to build relationships. Many women at the event reported not being invited for golf outings or other traditionally male-dominated activities where key business connections are made. One leader encouraged women: “Ask yourself, ‘Am I being excluded from important decision-making?’” If so, she suggested that women hold their own breakfasts and lunches to help foster relationships. As these efforts have taken root, another participant observed, “There’s an old girls’ club building in sales.” Additionally, joining nonprofit boards and participating in formal programs at organizations aimed at improving diversity can help women widen their networks. At the same time, informal support mechanisms can be extremely valuable. A personal cabinet of advisers can help women navigate their careers and act as a sounding board.


3. Everyone can be an advocate. Mentoring up-and-coming women is crucial in building a more diverse pipeline of sales leaders. Some attendees recommended going two to three levels down in the organization to inspire women who are earlier in their careers to stay in the sales track. Others suggested giving feedback to women, even if they aren’t direct reports. In addition, being heard is a common challenge for women in sales. In meetings, men and women alike should encourage women to speak up by commenting, “It looks like Jane has something to say.” To address the all-too-frequent problem of being interrupted, one sales leader said she handles the issue by simply saying, “I’m not finished.” HR can also play a key role in improving the representation of women by committing to diverse hiring, offering training on how to avoid unconscious bias and re-examining policies that may hinder progress.


While more progress needs to be made, the majority of the sales leaders at the forum were optimistic about the future of the function. Many noted how sales is critical in enabling an organization’s growth and that they are excited to see the change in diversity already underway for the next generation. At the event’s close, it was clear that there was a revitalized commitment to gender diversity at the top and advocacy for women from both genders, as well as a fresh approach to building relationships that will help close the gender gap in sales leadership.


Michael Dickstein is a leader of Spencer Stuart’s Sales Officer Practice and a member of the Technology, Media & Telecommunications Practice. He recruits senior-level executives for clients ranging from private equity-backed startups to multinational companies. Reach him via email and follow him on LinkedIn.