Women continue to be underrepresented in B2B sales roles. In a recent Harvard Business Review article, data reveals that women still hold less than a third of sales jobs. Yet research shows women are more likely to reach their sales targets than men. And the skills learned in a sales role can set women up for success in many other future endeavors.
A large step toward inspiring more young women into B2B sales roles starts with role models. At Mereo, we spoke with Becky Abraham, an Associate Client Partner in sales effectiveness, GTM strategy and sales transformation at Korn Ferry. Becky started her career in commercial sales, and she wants to share with early career women all the benefits sales has had for her career.
What do you think is standing in the way for more women to pursue a sales career?
Abraham: Like a lot of positions, women often don’t see other women in these roles, so they unconsciously begin to think that’s not a role they should pursue. Also, negative misconceptions of salespeople being “pushy,” “aggressive” and “annoying” continue to dissuade women, and men for that matter, away from even considering these roles. Even if they are drawn to a sales role, women often are not applying for positions unless they feel 100% qualified.
There are also challenges on the hiring side. Because of unconscious bias, hiring managers tend to hire people who are familiar; it is just something we do as humans. So in many organizations the natural inclination is to hire individuals like those who have been successful, which historically have been men. I also think this is an opportunity to hire not just for past performance but for potential, and with more organizations using assessments, that information is becoming more readily available and part of the hiring process.
So the answer isn’t just one thing: We need more women interested in and applying to sales roles — but we also need open minds to receive those applications and support women in the role.
What unique impact can women make in B2B sales?
Abraham: First, as customer bases become more diverse, it’s important that sales organizations reflect that diversity. Second, women have been shown to have key skills that make them successful in a sales role, such as collaborating, building trust, active listening and relationship-building — which is needed in the current buying environment.
You are a big advocate for a career in sales, despite not being in a direct sales position any longer. How has a sales background impacted your professional journey and success?
Abraham: If you would have told me in college that I was going to have a role in sales, I would have laughed. But sales grounded me for all of my future endeavors. My first job when I moved to Washington, DC, happened to be a sales role, supporting an account manager for a research organization. I think the job title had “analyst” in it, but it really was a sales support role. My manager happened to be a woman and ended up being a wonderful and encouraging mentor, reminding me that I was the expert in the product and could bring that confidence to clients.
In those three years I learned and grew a lot. For example, at first, each time I heard “no,” which is said more often than “yes” in sales, I struggled to not take it personally. But you eventually learn what’s out of your control. You also have to remember that your customers are human too. You build resilience and grit, as well as a key understanding of human psychology and motivation, which is helpful in any job or industry.
The communication skills I was able to develop were also invaluable. If you can’t say in the first sentence or subject line of an email or in a 10-second voicemail why meeting with you is worth someone’s time, then you’ve essentially lost the sale. Clarity and conciseness are key. And focusing on exchanging value, and what that means for customers, is game-changing.
In truth, we are all selling something, even if we’re not asking someone to sign a contract. We ask people for time. We ask people to change behaviors. That’s why I love the book To Sell Is Human: The Surprising Truth About Moving Others by Daniel H. Pink. He speaks to this and offers a reframe for considering human interactions, decision making and sales in a new light.
What would you tell a woman who is hesitant to pursue a career in sales to make her reconsider?
Abraham: Forget about your preconceptions of who and what a salesperson is. The role has changed. We can and should reframe what this position means internally and externally. In a sales role, you’re not just selling something. You’re learning about other people and motivation, how businesses operate and grow, and their opportunities and challenges. And you find a way to make a positive impact. If you reconsider what it is you can do in this role, you aren’t a salesperson any longer — you become a consultant, problem-solver, collaborator, trusted business partner. Would a role like that be appealing to you?
How can current sales professionals and selling organizations help invite more women to join a career in sales?
Abraham: It starts with the job posting and description, highlighting the elements of problem-solving and collaboration. Using language like that, companies can help reframe what it means to be a salesperson and to challenge some of the stereotypes that still exist. And in hiring, companies can increase the diversity of their applicants through initiatives like partnership programs and ensuring they are seeking a more diverse talent pool before hiring decisions are made. After that, organizations can help give women the opportunity to succeed and rise-up in sales roles through formal programs like sponsorship and mentorship from other leaders, men and women alike. Providing stretch opportunities, like being a player/coach for a team, also cultivates a more diverse pipeline of managers. As more women fill roles throughout all levels of the organization, naturally more women will be attracted to sales.
What resources can young women turn to best prepare for and get a foot in the door to a sales career?
Abraham: Many universities are offering sales curriculums, and that’s a great option for women in college to be able to take a few classes to learn more about sales. Beyond that, women have access to learning resources, like LinkedIn Learning and insightful sales books — and a growing number of thought leaders to watch and learn from.
Here are some of my favorite organizations supporting women in sales:
- The National Association of Women Sales Professionals (NAWSP): Women supporting women in sales roles
- She Sells Women in Sales Summit: A community for women in sales, stronger together
- Sistas in Sales: A national organization dedicated to serving women of color in professional sales careers
- Flip the Script: Free sales training made by women, for women
Here are some of my favorite women in sales thought leaders:
Speaking of communities that uplift women, tell us about the organization you support, Nerdy Girl Success®. Why is this organization important to young women starting to think about their careers?
Abraham: The mission of Nerdy Girl Success is near and dear to my heart because it’s all about helping young women learn about and engage with different careers. We want to change the landscape of leadership by supporting and preparing young women of diverse backgrounds to become the decision makers in business, politics, the arts and more — thus making a true impact on society.
Nerdy Girl Success offers both virtual and in-person programming. We hold Career & Leadership Summits, help young women start high school clubs, facilitate a career prep program, and provide mentorship opportunities.
Learn more about what we do and how to get involved here. I’ll be at the Chicago Career and Leadership Summit on November 5, 2022, and hope to see you there!