As co-founder of the Great Canadian Sales Competition, which has educated more than 7000 postsecondary students about the profession and boasts Google, IBM, Cisco, Shopify, and FreshBooks among its sponsors, Sonya Meloff has witnessed firsthand the lack of women in the Canadian technology sales landscape.
Part of the problem, she notes, is a shortage of sales talent across the industry in general, illustrated by a recent Canadian Professional Sales Association report that discovered 40 per cent of sales teams had received no formal training in at least a year and that one-third of managers had no time to train them.
But she also believes the industry has a reputation problem, one connected to both Silicon Valley’s notorious “bro culture,” and the public’s perception of salespeople in general.
“I think there is a misconception in particular about the personality type that makes for a successful salesperson,” she says. “There’s an assumption that you have to be loud, boisterous, pushy, selling people something they don’t want. Whereas in business to business (B2B) sales, it’s about solving a problem by working in partnership. I think if there was less misunderstanding of what corporate sales are, we would see more people – and particularly women – pursuing that career path.”
Meloff’s belief in showcasing and sharing the value of a sales career is a key reason she created the Great Canadian Sales Competition in the first place: the organization was founded on the premise that students exposed to the profession as a viable career path are more likely to become salespeople by choice rather than as a fallback.
“I feel so proud of my work in sales because of all the functional departments within an organization. I think we’re the most clearly measured and the closest to a meritocracy,” she says, noting that her profession also has a healthier future than many other departments.
The tech industry also adds its own barriers, says Meloff, whose consultation firm Sales Talent Agency includes well-known tech clients. For example, despite some exceptions the majority of tech companies, especially B2B brands, keep a low public profile.
“Nobody hears about what Cisco does, yet they’re a multi-billion dollar manufacturer of routers and switches,” Meloff says. “The students and women that we talk to are familiar with the popular consumer brands, but it’s the business to business brands that are actually at the core of the tech community.”
Then there’s the popular misconception that working in technical sales requires technical skills.
“So many times I will suggest tech companies to prospective salespeople, and they’ll say, ‘I’m just not a technical person,'” she says. “‘Do you enjoy solving problems? Do you enjoy helping people find a solution? That’s all technology is – a tool for solving problems.”
Meloff believes that if the tech industry is serious about adding more women to its sales teams – and for the past 11 years, she says, that’s been her tech collaborators’ top request – it needs to both address the preconceptions that keep women from considering the industry to begin with and highlight the benefits that make it an appealing career.
“For example, I think sales is a profession that really plays well to the type of flexibility that women may require should they choose to become mothers,” she says. “If you have to leave early for pickup, for doctor’s appointments, it doesn’t matter in sales. It’s all about results, not time spent at a desk.”
She does see hope for the future, however – many of Canada’s top tech companies and their sales teams are being led by women – including Cisco Canada president Rola Dagher, who also makes a point of presenting sales in a way that appeals to women, and whose company has experienced considerable success by encouraging female entrepreneurs.
Empower your candidates
For Dagher, the tech industry’s lack of women is an opportunity rather than a drawback. It provides her with the opportunity to run a company based on what she calls her “three pillars: Empower, impact, and inspire.”
Under empowerment, she mentions the Cisco Empowered Women’s Network, launched in 2013 to encourage female entrepreneurs, postsecondary students, and employees across the company to pursue a career in the tech industry.
“It’s something every organization should be doing,” she says, noting that the initiative has raised awareness among Cisco executives and left a tangible impact on the company: the percentage of women on Cisco Canada’s leadership team, for instance, has increased from less than 10 per cent in 2015 to around 25 per cent today.
“I’ve told my HR leader: every time we open a requisition, I want to make sure I’m seeing diversity. I want make sure that if we have five men and a women, a women should have the same opportunity as the five men to go out and prove to the world that she has what it takes to do the job,” Dagher says.
As for inspiration, Dagher says that during her first 10 months at Cisco, the last two executives promoted at the company have been women.
“They were promoted not because they were women, but because they were the right choice for the business,” she says. “Because most of the team that interviewed them thought they’d bring an authentic approach – one that isn’t just based on IQ.”
Like Meloff, Dagher also believes a career in sales is ideal for women, noting that leaders in the field need creativity and emotional intelligence more than academic or technical talent.
“We can use people with high IQ, but they aren’t necessarily the right people for the job, because people are looking for creativity and emotional intelligence too,” she says. “And I find that women bring more of that authentic creativity and emotional intelligence to the table.”
The technical skills, she notes, can be acquired through training.
Two other obstacles Dagher likes addressing are the reluctance of women to step outside their comfort zone, and their tendency to be more focused than men on balancing work and family life.
“I think the biggest risk we have as women is we tend to be comfortable and we don’t want to be uncomfortable,” she says. “And unfortunately… growth and comfort don’t co-exist, so we don’t have a lot of women going outside of their comfort zone to get uncomfortable and be where they need to be.”
As for balance, “I don’t think that’s a word for me,” she says. “It’s all about contentment on each side.”
Reach for the top
One other essential component of attracting more women to sales is ensuring that diversity reaches every level of the company, two other executives say.
As PointClickCare senior vice president Joan Leroux, who recently told ITBusiness.ca how tech firms can use their industry to build diverse sales teams, puts it, “You’re not going to attract a wide pool of diverse candidates if they can’t see a future ahead of them.”
“An organization that’s pursuing diversity has to breathe it as part of its culture through all levels,” Leroux says. “While we can make progress more quickly with front-line roles with lesser responsibility… it can’t just be at the front lines – we need to see that same goal reflected in senior roles.”
Adobe Canada senior enterprise account executive Carrie Lee echoes Leroux’s assessment, estimating that when she started her IT sales career at Oracle 10 years ago, there was only one other female salesperson out of 50 – and that woman was based in the U.S.
Like Meloff, Lee believes there are fewer female salespeople in the tech industry because it’s seen as more technical; yet in her opinion the more stereotypically “female” industry in which she started her sales career – corporate apparel, for Cincinnati-based Cintas – was more difficult.
“Truthfully, if I look at the sales cycles between what I did at Cintas versus what I’m doing now at Adobe, Cintas was much harder because it was door to door, whereas tech… is going in front of customers and illustrating value,” Lee says.
“Now that I’m a little more senior in my IT sales career, I definitely try to find ways to create a little bit more exposure to what I do, so that I can be a role model for younger professionals or young girls who don’t even think of sales, or IT sales specifically, as a career.”