Getting More Women in Sales: Do We Have a Language Barrier?

10/30/2018

A few years ago, when I had a sales enablement leadership role, I was asked to provide feedback on the draft of a speech our sales leader was giving to the sales force during the sales kick-off. 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 much 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 sale force.” As you can imagine, nothing changed back then.


You may think that has changed by now. I wish! However, things didn’t change, simply because there is not enough awareness regarding the language we use. Presenters at sales research events, who tend to be male, routinely use “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 much sense, just from a business perspective. Many studies in the last two years have shown that mixed sales teams perform better than others.There are studies (for instance a study conducted by Professor Joel Le Bon and another one by Hubspot) that show that within top performing groups, there are often more women than men.


As women in sales is a no-brainer from a business perspective, so 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.


Is language a significant barrier 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 even be legally allowed 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 both cases, the victim is dead at the end, either after it has been “hunted” or “fished” or after the “battle” was won. These 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.


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 their minds 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, have 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 conversations, “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.


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