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Women in Sales Leadership

October 27, 2020

The Harvard Business Review wrote that "no profession in business has a more complex reputation than sales", and yes, even for our world of education marketing and recruitment, it is complex.

It is complex not just because of the cliched and outdated image of a pushy alpha male salesperson who says anything just to crush numbers and targets like hapless foes. No, there is another reason, and that reason is the gender imbalance at the top.

Surveys vary in detail, but the broad picture is always the same. Women occupy the majority of the junior and mid-level roles in Marketing and Recruitment, but in the very top roles, it is still much more likely to be a man who sits in the chair.

Now, finding examples of inspiring women in sales leadership is not a problem. The issue is that women at the top of this profession should stand out as having succeeded despite the profession. The Boston Consulting Group report that "there are fewer women leaders in sales than in any other business function except supply chain and logistics". Now that's a problem, and it is compounded even further for women of color.

For young, ambitious women in Business Schools or professional training, they already know that the road to the top of any profession within business may be more challenging for them. Though things are changing, the latest reports show only 29% of top leadership positions worldwide are held by a woman.

The world of sales, in general, falls even shorter than that figure. In our world of education marketing and recruitment, though it's hard to get precise figures for the industry, we have found that women occupy many of the key positions in marketing and admissions, but not the top C level roles. Without real and visible gender balance at the top, is it any wonder that young women might look at the profession and lower their expectations of career progression?

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The field of education marketing and recruitment is a totally different universe from selling insurance or cars, but yet the word "sales" can apply to both, and that means we have to look at how we present our profession and how we talk about it.

We know that in the education field, our focus is on building relationships, listening, solving problems, and being creative. Targets and metrics are hugely important but come more organically as a result of really understanding what people need. People come first, and though we strive to get the best from ourselves, we work as a team.

Finding common ground with our partners and clients, we love the challenge and creativity of finding the right solution, and the connection that comes from helping others succeed in the world of education. Every day is different, and whether we are helping a university to showcase what makes it unique, or connecting students, agents and institutions, we know this profession has a lot to offer.

But does this message get out there beyond the stereotypes? Are young women put off applying for roles in our profession? If you look at an industry and see women becoming scarcer as you climb the hierarchy, that is not the most inspiring start to a career. Those at the top set the tone and the culture, and that matters.

We could talk all day about how women are better listeners and tend to be better at building relationships. But we won't. This is not about women's capacity to succeed in sales and marketing; there should be no doubt about that.

We could also talk about company cultures, about supporting maternity leave and promoting gender diversity, but that is also a given. Equity in leadership representation is also not just about reducing the argument to the very obvious economic benefit.

Those organisations have the information and resources to do better, and making it all happen is up to them. We're not about to wait.

What we can do, and we can do right now, is to help make this career more appealing and inspiring. By supporting women to add their voices and enrich the profession, we can make a difference. NEO Academy will play our part.

Women are less likely to have mentors than men, and of course less likely to see themselves reflected in leadership in this profession. We'll be reaching out to other women, making ourselves more visible, and sharing in our experiences.

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This matters. When we see the narrative changing, we believe change can happen. The female lead is a perfect example of positive influence; sharing stories and examples of women who "inspire by lifting others".

Advocacy work by Spencer Stuart finds that "Mentoring up-and-coming women is crucial in building a more diverse pipeline of sales leaders...to inspire women who are earlier in their careers". We couldn't agree more.

In the coming months, stay tuned for interviews with the NEO team and with fellow women in the field. You can also expect more from us each week on our blog. This month we will be interviewing NEO's Founder & CEO Alejandra Otero, and covering her talk at the Universidad San Ignacio de Loyola's Youth Without Borders: The Female Entrepreneur Generation event on 19th November.

We would also love to talk to young women studying business, and talk about what this career path has to offer, so please do reach out if we can make that happen for your institution.

Let's keep talking, inspiring, and lifting each other. Are you with us?

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