According to a new report by Gartner, the sales function has the second highest gender leadership gap, with 19 percent of sales professionals from the department head to the general manager level being female. This gap is worse even than engineering and IT, which are notorious for their gender gaps. Furthermore, the gender ratio in first-line B2B sales manager positions has not changed over the last 10 years, with just 28.4 percent of first- and mid-level sales managers being female. The pay gap is also a problem in sales; Gartner reports that despite a higher average quota attainment rate for women, men have a higher average commission rate and average total variable pay and base pay.

Why Is There a Gap?

Several experts say there’s a disconnect between the way we tend to view the sales role and the way women tend to view themselves. Sales can also be a demanding career in terms of things like balancing travel time with family demands, says Victoria Koval, head of learning design and digital talent solutions at Gartner and global chair of Women at Gartner. Additionally, says Jill Konrath, sales acceleration strategist and author of “Agile Selling,” “people hire people in their own image.” The result is what she calls a “self-fulfilling prophecy,” where men hire more men, and women don’t volunteer for sales roles because the descriptors used for those roles (“hunters,” “hustlers,” “quota-busters,” etc.) tend to be more male-oriented.

Why Is It Important?

Matt Cameron, founder of SalesOps Central, which recently launched free sales management training for female sales leaders in tech, believes that “having women in leadership is the fastest way to turnaround the institutionalized misogyny and predatory practices, [which] have been tolerated for too long.” He says technology, in particular, “is an industry that has been dominated by powerful men exploiting an imbalance of power.”

In addition to changing that culture, diversity is important for talent management and performance reasons. Gartner reports that employers say sales reps are the third hardest role to find, and companies spend, on average, 41 days trying to fill a technical sales job (compared to an average of 33 days for all other jobs). Over one-third of sales managers say they can’t find candidates for open positions, and for every day a role is unfilled, an employer loses an average of $407 per day (not including onboarding costs).

“Everybody’s looking for ‘A’ players,” Konrath says, “but they’re only looking for ‘A’ players in half the population.” That’s true of both recruiters and for managers looking for talent within the company. And once they are hired, according to Gartner research, women are less likely to say they’re planning to leave the organization and stay in their roles an average of one year longer than men.

The impact on performance is also clear. Diverse teams, Koval says, lead to more creativity and innovation, which lead to better business outcomes. Teams that are led by women also tend to have more loyal employees, and Gartner research found that organizations with sales forces made up of at least 45 percent women have a higher mean number of customers and mean sales revenue and are more likely to have higher-than-average profitability and market share.

Konrath points out that buyers increasingly want salespeople who are collaborative and always looking for ways to help them achieve their goals – “things that women excel at.” Recent research by Training Industry confirmed that buyers value communication skills and long-term relationships with vendors.

What’s the Solution?

SalesOps Central’s women’s training program includes topics such as coaching skills, frameworks for performance improvement, how to forecast best practices, performance management, sales operations and enablement, building a sales culture, and managing up and across.

In addition to these skills, negotiation is a critical skill for both leadership and sales, and recent research by Training Industry found that men in leadership roles were much more likely to receive training in negotiation skills than women were. Konrath says negotiation as well as self-promotion are key skills to help female sales leaders advance.

Provide unconscious bias training, Koval says, and help men understand “the specific challenges and obstacles that women face in the workplace” and how they can help them overcome those obstacles. She believes many of the problems that cause women not to feel appreciated, safe and secure at work are due to ignorance rather than malevolence.

Training Industry’s research also found that coaching can be a key equalizer of leadership training, and considering the increasingly important role this development tool is playing in sales, it’s perhaps especially important that organizations make sure there are strong coaching strategies and relationships in place for female sales professionals.

Part of that process is making sure managers, especially new managers, understand gender as well as individual differences in selling approaches. That way, says Lori Richardson, president of Women Sales Pros, “they don’t think a woman is too nice to close business, for example” – a stereotype she’s heard frequently.

Mentoring is also an effective development strategy, and Koval says reverse mentoring and pairing mentors and mentees of different genders can be different but effective approaches. Pairing different genders, she says, “opens up our understanding of what the opposite gender is going through.” Making sure mentoring is happening – and happening effectively – is perhaps especially important for women, whom Richardson points out aren’t mentored as much as men are. She recommends providing “clear examples” of excellent mentoring conversations and situations to help make men more comfortable mentoring women in the #MeToo era. Konrath says it’s equally important to assign new female managers their own mentees to help them learn the coaching skills they need to be a first-line sales manager.

When developing training, Koval says, make sure language is gender-neutral or inclusive of both genders. For example, when doing role-plays, make sure the salespeople in role-plays are equally male or female. When a woman is participating in an activity where she isn’t represented, Koval says, that sends a pretty clear signal to her about the organization’s values and her development potential. Konrath suggests assigning those high-potential employees “meaningful projects that could actually be implemented the next day” to build skills and confidence.

Koval also stresses the importance of advocacy, or what’s often called sponsorship – having executives who are deliberate about putting a woman’s name forth when development opportunities become available. Richardson says women aren’t sponsored as much as men are, which has obvious ramifications with the leadership pipeline. She suggests assigning executives to work with high-potential employees – male or female.

Try to eliminate stereotypes and assumptions throughout the organization. For example, Richardson says, “Women may connect socially and do more through social connection than their male counterparts … [We need] to be open to different styles.” Organizations should also change the language they use to be more inclusive. For example, women, on average, will be less engaged if money is the primary motivator. “We should be focusing at all times on the buyer and helping the buyer achieve their goals,” Konrath says. That includes collaboration, “having deep knowledge of what matters to your buyer,” and asking good questions. “Those are the skills that matter, and if we can talk about those skills … I think you’ll find women go, ‘Oh, I can do that!’”

“This is not a women’s issue,” Konrath says. Organizations need “a sales force that reflects the demographics of our country. I think we are better for that, and more ideas will come out – better ideas that will expand what’s possible and make the entire sales force better – the entire organization better.” It’s really a win-win.

March was Women’s Leadership Month at Check out our research report “Women’s Access to Leadership Development: A Tale of Two Experiences” by clicking here, watch our webinar recording, listening to this podcast episode or read the other great articles we published this month on developing women leaders: