Linda Richardson in conversation with Joanne Black
The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan opens with the words, “The problem lay buried, unspoken, for many years in the minds of American women. It was a strange…sense of dissatisfaction…” Ms. Friedan was writing about “the problem that has no name.” Today, that problem – gender discrimination – has a name, and while enormous progress has been made, women still continue to struggle in the workplace for equality in opportunity and pay.
Fifty-two years have passed since Ms. Friedan’s paragraph started the women’s movement to professional equality. Progress is being made, but data shows it is being made slowly. The LinkedIn Diversity Report tells us that the percentage of women in sales increased significantly in the past 10 years. Women now make up 39% of the sales force. Xactlly Insight Gender Study reports that women in sales outperform their male counterparts – for example, they attain 70% of quota compared to 67% achieved by men. Yet, despite a higher level of performance (or even an equal level), women make up only 21% of Vice Presidents and there is a steep decrease the more senior the role. Subtle, and not so subtle, barriers in the corporate environment continue to reinforce the glass ceiling. For example, men are three times as likely to interrupt a woman, as they are to interrupt other men. Cheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook and Adam Grant, Professor of Marketing at the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania, have found that when a woman speaks up in a professional setting she barely is heard, or is judged as being too aggressive. Hence, many women hold back for fear of hurting their careers.
Joanne Black, sales referral expert and author No More Cold Calling and Pick Up the Damn Phone: How People Not Technology Seal the Deal is embarking on a study of women’s natural strengths that make them particularly effective in sales. The goal is to help women leverage those strengths and help ensure it is women’s work, not their gender, that determines career advancement and economic status.
I led a Q&A with Joanne to understand what has set her on this journey:
What do you see as the challenges that women in sales face?
The challenges women talk about are consistent. From the panels I have been on and my interviews so far with 50 women across generations and industries, women have the same concerns: First is that their voice is not heard. They tell me that often when they share an idea it is either ignored or appropriated. They tell me that they are excluded from discussions, perhaps not intentionally, but because they are not even thought of. Traditionally, men have had the power and that historical perspective carries over to how women are perceived. Women also acknowledge that they themselves make things worse by not speaking up, because they feel they won’t be listened to or they will be labeled as “aggressive.” And finally, some of the women express a lack of confidence for fear of making mistakes and hurting their careers.
What in the culture of a sales organization contributes to this?
Sales leadership often does not recognize there is a gender issue. They don’t reflect on things like the ratio of women in sales to the number of women in sales management, or family friendly policies for women or men. But we know that, in most family situations, the burden falls on women. In many situations, sales pay for women is not the key issue, but opportunity for career advancement and making an impact is. Most businesses have male cultures as shown even by the language they use such as “hit the ball out of the park” and “kill the quota.”
How do you see language as a manifestation of a male oriented culture?
It is a reflection of a male orientation. As you pointed out in your recent blog, more women leave their jobs because of the work environment than the mommy track. It depends on the organization, but a male oriented culture is not uncommon.
What is needed from sales leadership and middle management to create an equal environment?
The CEO and executive team must be committed to making diversity a core value. CEOs must visibly support diversity initiatives. Initiatives often get stuck in the middle management level and therefore the message must be repeated again and again and, more importantly, role modeled. There must be accountability to hire and develop women to succeed.
What do you see as the natural abilities women can leverage?
These are generalizations but from interviews with women, customers, and men alike, the perceptions are consistent. Women are excellent relationship builders because they are strong conversationalists. They ask questions and listen. They are intuitive and lean toward listening to their intuition. Women are also collaborative – a quality important to organizations today. Their emotional IQ tends to be high and they are nurturing.
So you see female characteristics, although generalized, aligning with the new sales profile and model of sales leadership?
Yes and women must recognize this advantage. This should be a confidence builder.
How can women leverage this to take a place at the table, influence the culture, and break through the ceiling?
They have to do all three, and much is in their hands. It is up to women to first and foremost push themselves to speak up. They must have the confidence to claim a seat at the table. Only by changing their behavior will they change perceptions. They should make every effort to develop a mentor – even if not a formal one. Women have natural abilities that make them successful in sales, and they should use those skills to find and nurture a mentor – or several mentors.
At the start of the article, I noted that today “the problem” has a name. As a matter of fact, it has multiple names: Gender bias, sexism, harassment, discrimination, and workplace climate…
It has been 53 years since the publishing of The Feminine Mystique. We cannot deny that progress has been made. There is legislation, corporate mandates, genuine caring and actions on the part of sales leadership, CEO’s and companies publicly committing to diversity, women CEOs of global companies, programs in colleges and organizations—yet there is a way to go. The first step in 1963 is the same as today: Women must take the lead and speak up. Women should see one another as “sisters” in the second phase of the Mystique. Women must find their voice.
I, like you, don’t want my gender to define my success. While there are gender constraints, there are also advantages. The important thing is not gender, but the quality of the work, the contribution and the feeling of gratification. We know that genders are not identical. But thinking in terms of women vs. men limits potential of both.
Sales organizations need the talent of women and men. In the 60’s there were great strides, but change is happening more slowly now. Change will in fact happen. Professionals such as Joanne, and a number of women in the field, are putting a spotlight on women in sales so we can clearly see the status quo and drive progress. In this effort, a balance of genders, both women and men, would hasten and improve the results. We will all benefit when women and men, at all levels in a sales organization, not only “step-up to the plate” but do so with a strong co-ed winning team.