A few years ago, when I had a sales enablement leadership role, I was asked to provide feedback on the draft of the speech our sales leader wanted to make to the sales force during a sales kick-off meeting. The only concern I had was the language: sales professionals were generally addressed with “salesmen” and the masculine preposition “he” throughout the speech.
It took me a lot of courage to address the issue as I was working in a very male-dominated culture. However, I did. “Oh, that’s just my language” was the message I received. “That’s exactly the problem because this language excludes the 25% of women in our sales force,” I responded. As you can imagine, nothing changed.
You may think that it must have changed by now and I wish you were right. However, things didn’t change, simply because there is not enough awareness regarding the language we use. A few weeks ago, I attended a sales research event. I was stunned by the fact that so many, usually male, presenters regularly used the term “salesmen” as their default term. Every explanation that was provided was a masculine one that started with “the salesman.” Frustrating to say the least!
Getting more women in sales seems to make so much sense, just from a business perspective. Many studies have shown over the last couple of years, that mixed sales teams perform better than others. For instance, a study conducted by Professor Joel Le Bon and another one by Hubspot show that within top performing groups, there are often more women than men.
If women in sales is a no-brainer from a business perspective, why do we still have an issue when it comes to getting more women in sales roles?
As of today, based on a LinkedIn study, women represent 39% of the workforce in sales. This percentage only increased by 3% over the past decade, and the rate decreases with the seniority of roles. Only 21% of VP sales positions are held by women, compared to 26% overall.
What’s the role of language when it comes to the most significant barriers to getting more women in sales? Language transports values and beliefs and hidden meanings that are inherent to our culture.
- Let’s look at the language in sales job descriptions:
Sales job descriptions often include many masculine words like “hunter,” “aggressive” and “compete.” The descriptions, of course, don’t exclude women per se. Furthermore, it wouldn’t be legal to do so in most countries. However, the language is often not adequate to attract women who usually prefer to focus more on collaboration and co-creation.
- Let’s look at the language in sales organizations:
How does your sales leadership team address the sales force? As “salesmen” and with masculine prepositions, or is there a genuine interest in using a gender-balanced language because these leaders are aware of the impact their language has?
- Let’s look at common “sales speech:”
What do we actually say when we use the terms “hunting” and “fishing” and “battles”? In all cases, the victim is dead at the end, either after it has been “hunted” or “fished” or after the “battle” was won. You get the point; the analogies don’t work anymore. They simply come from a role-based preconception of a male-oriented lonely sales wolf that has to hunt, fish, and basically kill their victims, the customers. More sales speech such as the famous “killer presentation” clearly shows the highly competitive, aggressive and male-dominated nature that leads to winners and victims. Fast forward to today, nobody gets killed in sales. Luckily.
This male/war-oriented language supports and continues to nurture the role stereotypes we all want to overcome.
Dan Pink asked individuals (in his book To Sell is Human), to describe what comes to mind when they hear the term “sales.” The main adjectives used were “pushy,” “annoying,” “manipulative” and “dishonest.” And the image was a used-car salesman. These words explain why sales, in general, has an image problem, and why especially women don’t want to be associated with those terms.
Think about the sales term “cheat sheet.” It’s something we may have used back in school, here and there. Now, as adults, let’s clearly understand the meaning of the verb “to cheat,” and please keep Dan Pink’s findings in mind. Whatever verb you use to name such a piece of content that’s supposed to prepare a salesperson to have a value-based, inspiring, relevant and differentiating sales conversation, “cheat sheet” is without any doubt not adequate. What we mean are, for instance, briefs, playbooks, and overviews.
Stereotypes and preconceptions of women’s roles and abilities are still named as a critical barrier when it comes to getting more women in sales and sales leadership positions.
Another hurdle is the lack of female role models that are only changing slowly. With new female sales role models, the language will be different, and the stereotypes can be decreased.
Many different facets have to be addressed to get more women in sales and sales leadership roles. It’s about a sales leader’s vision and priority to get more women in sales, translated into tangible goals, and followed by clearly articulated hiring and promotion paths. Also, the soft facts such as the sales language must not be underestimated. Therefore, it’s all about creating awareness across the sales force when it comes to decisions, communications, and actions. Because we all, men and women, are impacted by our role and cultural biases. Creating awareness is the first step to change things.