Sales is a male-dominated industry, with only 39 percent of sales professionals being women. And even though Hubspot reported that women are 5 percent more likely to close a deal than men, the percentage of women in sales has only grown 3 percent over the last decade.
Personally, I have been working in the sales industry for ten years, and I have only had two female managers. When I first started working in sales, I was fortunate to be on a sales team that was gender diverse. But when you looked at the management level, it was all men. Then, one day, I transferred locations and ended up on an all-male sales team that was led by a woman.
I remember meeting the sales team and saying to myself: "Well, this is different." There was a clear distinction between the sales reps and the customer support reps. Sales reps were male, and support reps were female. And, now, there was me.
On my first visit, I could see in my new manager's eyes that she was elated to have me on her team. She did not waste any time taking me under her wing. It was my first day when Becky, my manager, taught me two career lessons that I still value to this day.
Becky told me that in her experience, the biggest mistake saleswomen make is trying to be “one of the guys.” She told me that this never worked and always backfired, which resulted in the saleswoman leaving their location or quitting altogether.
“Be you,” is what she told me when she took me on a walk around the sales floor. “Those doors are going to swing open, and the phone is always going to ring. You do not have to alter or change yourself to compete. Your authenticity is what will get you the customers."
Being "one of the guys" is probably not a new concept to you. It certainly wasn’t for me. But I had never heard anyone tell me I shouldn’t be one the guys. Something as simple as that made more sense to me than any training manual I read. I attribute a lot of my success as a saleswoman to not trying to play another person's game on the sales floor. Instead, I played my own game and walked to my own beat. I created my own opportunities. She was right — the customers naturally came to me.
Becky was very upfront with me and let me know that I would be her only female sales rep. She had not consistently had one in a long time. After that, she proceeded to tell me that this wasn't going to be the last time I'd be alone, either.
“I wish someone would have told me earlier in my career that I would not see many people like me as I move up,” she said.
I think we like to believe that the “only” experience doesn’t exist anymore when it comes to gender diversity, but it is still very much alive in corporate America. According to the 2018 McKinsey Women in the Workplace study, one in five women say they are often the only woman or one of the only women in the room at work. And this is twice as common for senior-level women and women in technical roles.
I worked at Becky’s location in 2013. Five years later, her comment is more real to me today than it was then.
I do not let the “only” experience impact my success or outcomes at work. Instead, I make it fuel my desire to work hard and help others along on their journey, because I know what it feels like to be the only woman and the only woman of color in a meeting, interviewing for a promotion or even on the sales floor.
I learned so much from Becky, and I am forever grateful that I was able to have an impactful female leader early in my career. I now share these same two points with future female leaders in my organization, helping shape one boss at a time.
Jemia is a certified Diversity & Inclusion Practitioner from Georgetown University. Her passions lie in research around equity, gender & diversity and blogging about her experiences as a woman of color. You can find Jemia on Twitter, LinkedIn and Instagram.