Sales Leadership: Where are all the women?

28 September 2017

We’ve been crunching our year-end data and we have a bit of a dilemma. This year we only placed one woman.

We place senior commercial leadership into media, information and technology companies and we only placed one woman.

Three women have been close to being appointed. One was offered the role, but she decided to stay in her current company (due, in part, to a very supportive CEO). Another woman lost out a role to a man with 20 years more experience (and was the youngest candidate in the process). Another lost out due to market forces; an acquisition quashed the role.

Our clients are not sexist. On the contrary, they want to see diversity in the candidates we present. So do we.

The odds are in some ways stacked against us to deliver on diversity (although this is no excuse). Sales has the worst leadership gap of any sector. Women make up 38% of the sales workforce and 27% of sales leadership roles.[1] This falls short of the UK’s average figures of women in leadership.[2]

The candidate market may not be our ally in this, but there is more we could be doing – and will do to redress the imbalance. We’re gatekeepers of some outstanding leadership opportunities and we want to do more. We’re starting here, at the level of reconnaissance. We’ll being examining our own practices and we’ll move towards implementing good ideas by Q2 2018. We would appreciate the input of our network.

We plan to take affirmative action. We’re going to see what we can do to influence this creatively and positively. For example, we’ll audit the language in our job adverts to ensure they don’t exclude by using “masculine” language.[3]

We’ll also share our findings here on LinkedIn for our network to use, distribute or feedback. Women are statistically less likely to engage with LinkedIn, but it’s our loudest platform.

It is a real loss not to have more female commercial leaders. It’s a profession run by metrics and performance and this should in some ways protect women from unconscious bias. But this is not the case.

We work in information, media and technology; an area that has a huge influence on the world. It impacts what we see, create and know – and our behaviour.

We’re looking forward to improving the diversity offering within our service to bring something of real value to the wider world. We’ll be as transparent as we can and we hope to benefit from your input.

Thank you.

The Herringbone Team

Why We Need Female Sales Leaders

Putting aside the macro-economic and ethical arguments for gender diversity (and there are many), businesses benefit from female leadership. Gender diversity makes business sense. According to Ernst and Young, women in leadership increases firm profitability by 15%.[4]

Decision-makers in B2B contexts are increasingly women[5] but 78% of companies in the UK don’t differentiate their approach to female business decision-makers (we’re conscious we haven’t been).[6]

“Some of the companies we interviewed began to take the female economy seriously after receiving a wake-up call: Sending an exclusively male team to make a sales pitch to an all-female buying team was a commonly mentioned trigger.”[7] A.T Kearney [The Rise of the Female Economy]

Why Aren’t There More Women in Sales Leadership?

We suspect that women not getting into sales leadership is cumulative. Apparently faced with time pressures and multiple CVs people are more likely to go for “people like me” and therefore male homogeny triumphs. We see this less at senior levels in the industry – more in the first 10 years of a career, but these are the years where women can be enticed into (or disparaged from) leadership.

Research suggests a double standard with women needing three years in a company to be promoted and men only needing two. Male CVs also have a higher engagement rate than women.

“Starting with a company that is evenly split between men and women at every level, the consequence of a 1% bias towards hiring and promoting men is that, after 20 decisions made with just that 1% bias, men occupy 65% of a company’s leadership positions. Over time, of course, that disparity just gets more pronounced.”[8]

LinkedIn has an excellent gender and diversity report (Moving the Needle for Women Leaders) that illustrates some other factors at play.[9]

Some interesting points include:

  • Men have a longer window in the workforce to strive for leadership positions (30 years). Women have between 10-15 years.
  • Women are 61% more likely than men to have a partner with a job as or more intense than theirs.
  • Women are 5 times more likely to be the primary parent.
  • Women rate their own confidence, aspiration and endurance less highly than men – at the beginning and middle of their career.
  • The report also has some interesting thoughts on overcoming the gap through hiring, development and retention. Recommended reading.

We’ve all heard that men are more likely to apply for a role if they feel “somewhat” qualified – whereas women will eliminate themselves. In theory, women applicants should be more attractive than men, having self-screened as meeting the job requirements.

We also suspect there is a drop-off in the workforce of high potential female sales employees several years prior to leadership and will be investigating.

Our Own Gender Experience

Our internal system isn’t really set up to gather diversity data (despite being a popular CRM system for recruiters and Headhunters).

We do have some anecdotal facts that say something about the sector (and probably us).

  1. Every female candidate we have worked with at this level is absolutely exceptional in terms of their previous experience, numbers, leadership reputation and how they come across. (Do they have to be exceptional to get to the top?)
  2. Every woman we’ve put forward this year has impressed and progressed in the interview process – despite having been in their previous roles for years (i.e. they were not consummate interviewees).
  3. Women rarely approach our company (as clients or candidates).
  4. Men regularly approach us as clients or candidates.
  5. The majority of applicants for our roles are men (we’ll be auditing our job descriptions).
  6. If we approach women concerning an opportunity, they are much less likely than men to get back to us. We currently use the same approach for screening and approaching men and women (we may change this).
  7. ~95% of the senior commercial leaders in our network are men, despite our concerted efforts.
  8. New clients who are women (~15% of our clients) work with us on the basis of trusted referral through industry relationships. New male clients seem to prefer referral, but will award us an appointment based on our pitching our services to them. (Perhaps our approach needs to change).
  9. Once we have secured the trust of a female candidate they are notably loyal, cooperative and thoughtful about our own business needs – even if we haven’t been able to help them securing a role immediately. Of course, many of the men are too, but allthe women are.
  10. We deal directly with CEOs and MDs and they are (for the most part) men. They don’t seem to be as answerable to PSL and HR process.
  11. Many of our clients’ HR teams seem evenly split male/female – though men tend to hold the leadership positions.
  12. We created a LinkedIn sponsored content campaign and our target demographic was senior leadership in our sector (and in the UK). Men outnumbered women approximately 8:3.
  13. Women seemed to be less represented on stage & programs of industry events.
  14. Men we work with who are not actively looking for roles will move roles (they’re considered “passive” or “sleeper” candidates). Women will move roles if they’ve been looking for a role (considered “active” candidates).
  15. All our network would rather hire through their network (rather than use internal or external agencies). Does this exacerbate homogeny?

We’d love to ask our network some questions to improve. We’re gatekeepers to leadership opportunities and want these to be as accessible as possible – for all.

We look forward to hearing from you.

[1] LinkedIn Diversity & Inclusion Report

[2] – this is a great article. Though pre-dates BBC wage scandal. Talks interestingly of the parallel economy and paints an aspirational picture of the post-gender economy. They interviewed 2:1 men to women. Which we don’t understand in the context…

[3] &


[5] See the B2C case study of EDF Energy:



[8] – a great article that sketches types of unconscious bias and how to overcome it.