The Similarities and Differences Between Men and Women in Sales

Highlights from this Steve W. Martin Sales Research Originally Appeared in the Harvard Business Review



Steve W. Martin's recent research on the “The Persona of Top Sales Professionals” was based upon a study  to determine the personal attributes, attitudes, and actions that influence sales productivity. Over 1,000 sales professionals completed an extensive 43-question survey on various subjects including sales strategy preferences, quota performance history, and a wide variety of questions to better understand their values and personal beliefs. About 78 percent of participants were men, while 22 percent were women.

When the research data is analyzed by gender, it provides an interesting frame of reference on the similarities and differences between men and women in sales. These reference points have been grouped into three subject areas. The first subject is salespeople’s belief systems, ranging from how members of each gender perceive themselves to attitudes about truthfulness, and even how tall a salesperson should be. The second is on sales strategy, which includes topics such as how the members of each gender decide which deals to work and the relationships they have with customers. The final subject is career orientation, including what motivates men and women in sales, as well as performance comparisons.

About 28 percent of the men who participated in this study were field salespeople, 35 percent were inside salespeople, 9 percent were mid-level sales managers, 22 percent were top-level vice presidents of sales, and 6 percent were presales engineers. About 32 percent of women participants were field salespeople, 40 percent were inside salespeople, 8 percent were mid-level sales managers, 16 percent were top-level vice presidents of sales, and 4 percent were presales engineers.

It is important to note that the intent of the original study was to classify different sales personas and the specific traits, actions, and habits that are associated with performance. The design and semantics of the study were not specifically created to compare male and female sales professionals. Rather, the contrast between genders was quite apparent after the survey data was analyzed from a variety of perspectives.

The data was then aggregated and conclusions were drawn from the results. Finally, the study results were presented to focus groups consisting of thirty men and twenty-eight women to gather feedback and opinions. The focusgroups included both sales and non-sales business professionals.The focus group comments served as an important role in understanding the complexity of this research topic. They provided deeper gender-specific insights and contrasting viewpoints on the subject-matter being discussed.

Subject areas included in this research include:

Belief Systems

  Sales Strengths
  Importance of Luck

  School Subject Preference
  Physical Presence

Sales Strategy

  Reasons for Losing Business
  Prospective Customer Perception
  Customer Decision Making

  Prospecting Habits
  Client Relationships
  Deal Pursuit Risk
  Working on Deals

Career Orientation

  Life Decisions
  Future Orientation
  Handling of Failure
  Money Motivation

  Career Motivation
  Sales Mentor
  Previous Year Quota Achievement
  Career Advancement Rating

BELIEF SYSTEMS | Similarities - Sales Strengths

Even though successful salespeople know what they do, it is difficult to explain to another person how they do it. Frankly, they may not even know the real answer because most successful salespeople are simply doing what comes naturally. With this in mind, study participants were asked to select from three different statements that described different sales strengths.

Forty-six percent of men and 54 percent of women selected “I am a likeable person who makes customersfeel comfortable.” The purpose of this statement was to categorize respondents who consider themselvesmore of a people-person who is a skillful builder ofrelationships. Even though this was the most popularanswer choice, the overall annual quota achievementfor this group was the lowest of the three categories. Men averaged 96 percent of their quota and women 84 percent, and this may be because the salespeoplein this group are more amiable and less driven to win deals.

Twenty-seven percent of men and 22 percent of women selected “I am very dependable and good at prioritizing my time.” This statement was selected by those whotend to be task and measurement oriented. Men in thiscategory averaged 104 percent of their annual quota and women 100 percent. Constantly reprioritizing their time requires them to continually assess and qualify the pipeline of deals they’re working. Twenty-seven percent of men and 24 percent of women selected “I believe my knowledge is powerful.” This statement was selected by those who want to usetheir knowledge to exercise control and situational dominance. This group had the highest quota average at 106 percent for men and 100 percent for women.

BELIEF SYSTEMS | Similarities - Truthfulness

Put yourself in the position of the prospective customer for a moment. You’ve sat through hundreds of different sales presentations through the years. Because these presentations have been based upon marketing propaganda, one of your primary objectives is to delineate fact from fiction. Therefore, you are skeptical. You’ve also met hundreds of salespeople and have found many of them to be friendly, courteous, and professional.

You also have met your share of truly obnoxious salespeople who were pushy, arrogant, or just plain incompetent. Some salespeople lied straight to your face and broke their promises. They overcommitted what their products could do and misled you about what they couldn’t. You don’t want anything to do with liars. As a result, you initially treat every salesperson you meet with extreme wariness.

But what is the truth? Are salespeople prone to sugarcoating the truth or telling outright lies? And, does one gender stretch the truth more than the other? Study participants were asked to select the statement they agreed with most in regard to truthfulness. “Nothing but the whole truth is acceptable” was chosen by 41 percent of men and 39 percent of women. “You don’t have to point out every blemish of your product offering” was chosen by 35 percent of men and 30 percent of women. “Subtle information manipulation is reasonable, so long as the truth is served” was selected by 24 percent of women and 13 percent of men. “If the customer’s best interest is served by slightly obscuring information, that’s okay” was selected by 8 percent of men and 4 percent of women. “Sometimes you have to do whatever you must to get the important evaluators to back you” was selected by 3 percent of men and women.

BELIEF SYSTEMS | Similarities - Importance of Luck

I have had some interesting conversations with salespeople over the years about the role luck has played during sales cycles. Some salespeople have told me they superstitiously wear their lucky tie to important meetings, while others have said they won a key deal because of a fortunate development during the sales cycle or fluke encounter with a key decision maker that
profoundly influenced their winning.

In an attempt to quantify the prevalence and impact of luck in sales, participants were asked if luck played an important role in some of the key deals they had  won. So, should a salesperson rely on luck? The overwhelming answer is ‘no’ as only 30 percent of men
and 24 percent of women thought the statement was true and a minute 4 percent of men and women thought it was very true. Conversely, 66 percent of men and 72 percent of women thought it was very untrue or untrue or were neutral non-believers.

You can think of the range of answers in terms of how respondents feel they are in complete control of their destiny and to the extent they believe their skills are solely responsible for their success. Very untrue, untrue, and neutral respondents were more comfortable saying they were in control and reluctant to acknowledge the impact of luck.

BELIEF SYSTEMS | Differences - Competitiveness

Winning is everything in sales. Second place doesn’t really matter. Sales is a profession that is based upon competition. So, it is only natural that almost all salespeople will tell you they are competitive by nature. But the research indicates there are different levels ofcompetitiveness, and this is influenced by whether or not you are a male.

In an effort to find the truth about competitiveness, study participants were asked if they agreed with this thought-provoking statement: “I like to win, but cannot stand to lose because the pain of losing is greater than the joy of winning.” Forty-two percent of men versus 25 percent of women agreed that this statement was very true or true. This statement frames winning not from a standpoint of loving to win but from the point of view of hating to lose. The results generally indicate men are more competitive by nature. This may be because they put more pressure on themselves to win, losing to someone else causes them to question their own skills, or they feel publicly shamed when they must update a forecast and are proved unworthy. Conversely, 75 percent of women compared to 58 percent of men disagreed with or were neutral on this statement. The data generally suggests women do not have the same level of competitivenessas men.

BELIEF SYSTEMS | Differences - School Subject Preferences

One of the goals of the initial sales persona study was to understand the personal attributes and attitudes that influence success. Of the sales professionals who achieved over 125 percent of their annual quota last year, 29 percent selected history as their favorite school subject, 23 percent selected science, 23 percent selected math, 13 percent selected physical education, 9 percent selected language or composition, and only 3 percent selected art. However, this tells only part of the story.

A distinct difference becomes apparent when favorite school subject is analyzed by gender. The favorite subject of women was language or composition with 32 percent selecting it, while only 8 percent of men did. Twenty-eight percent of men ranked history as their favorite subject, which was nearly double the proportion of women, at 15 percent.

What do history and language/composition classes have in common? History is associated with the rise and fall ofcountries, iconic military battles, and important people who shaped their time. Language and composition classes focus on the skills of reading and writing, which may be developed through reading classic books or writing essays. In one sense, both subject areas revolve around storytelling. Therefore, it should not be surprising these are the top two subjects selected because salespeople are natural-born storytellers. It could be argued that history is the more masculine formand language/composition is the more feminine form of storytelling.

While men and women selected math and science subject areas in similar patterns, men preferred physicaleducation by nearly three to one, and women preferred art by a factor of two.

BELIEF SYSTEMS | Differences - Self-Perception

One of the most striking differences between male and female sales professionals was how they perceive themselves. Study participants were asked to select three words from a list of seventeen that they felt best described them. The top answer for both men and women was “confident” with 42 percent and 41 percent of mentions, respectively.

The second answer was quite different. Thirty-three percent of men selected “responsible,” while 32 percent of women selected “empathetic.” Only 19 percent of men selected “empathetic” and it was ranked in the eighth position of importance. For the third answer, 32 percent of men selected “likeable” while 32 percent of women selected “smart.”

BELIEF SYSTEMS | Differences - Physical Presence

How long is it before a prospective customer makes an initial assessment of whether or not he or she likes you during your first sales call? The answer is between 30 and 180 seconds, according to my research. During this time, the most important element of communication is your nonverbal physical presence. The way you dress and present yourself provides meaningful symbolism to the customer, and a salesperson’s height is one of the first things a customer notices at their first face-to-face meeting.

What’s the ideal height for a salesperson of the same gender as you? The answer obviously differs for men and women as shown below.

SALES STRATEGY | Similarities - Reasons for Losing Business

Losing is always hard. Learning you are the loser in the eleventh hour of a deal is a frustrating, humbling, and embarrassing event. Many salespeople do not take the time to figure out why they lost a deal or longtime client. They may reflexively blame it on factors out of their control because they really don’t know what was on the customer’s mind.

To gauge why salespeople think they lose business, study participants were asked to select from five different possible reasons. Two of the answers were predicated on the salesperson personally accepting responsibility: “I might have thought I was in a better position than I actually was” and “I was outsold.” Fortyseven percent of men and 40 percent of women selected these two answers. The other three answers placed the blame for losing elsewhere. They were “It wasn’t a truly good fit for my solution in the first place,” “Something outside of my control made it impossible to win,” and “The competition’s solution or company was better.” Fiftythree percent of men and 60 percent of women selected these answers, where the root cause of losing was not their fault.

SALES STRATEGY | Similarities - Prospective Customer Perception

When customers are choosing between two similar products, they will not always buy the better product. Rather, their tendency is to buy from the salesperson they believe is the better person. So, while one salesperson may have a slightly better product and be more proficient in explaining its features and functionality, in the end the customer may buy from the person who has the personal attributes the customer most admires.

Study participants were asked to select two qualities they thought customers admired the most about them. The results were nearly identical for men and women. The top three responses were “trustworthiness,” with 56 percent of mentions for men and 58 percent for women; “professionalism,” with 37 percent for men and 34 percent for women; and “follow-though,” with 31 percent for both men and women. There was a 5 percent or less difference between men and women for all attributes Less than 3 percent of men and women selected " eloquence,” “athleticism,” and“attractiveness.”

SALES STRATEGY | Differences - Prospecting Habits

The toughest task in all of sales is penetrating new accounts and securing meetings with busy prospective customers. Think about it for a moment: the same people you are trying to reach are continually hounded by your competitors and hundreds of other salespeople at the same time.

When you send a customer an e-mail or make a cold call, you are creating an unexpected stimulus that requires him or her to respond. This raises the question,“On what day of the week do you receive the highestprobability of receiving a response from a cold call or e-mail?”

However, a different pattern emerges when the results include only study respondents who achieved 100 percent or more of their quota. While the preferences of men remain the same, women prefer to prospect later in the week. Their order changes to 29 percent on Wednesday, 24 percent on Thursday, and 21 percent on both Monday and Tuesday. Only 5 percent of women over 100 percent of their quota selected Friday.

SALES STRATEGY | Differences - Client Relationships

At the foundation of all sales is a relationship between people. Great salespeople have an innate talent to build such relationships by creating rapport so that the customer feels at ease and enjoys their company. But the study results indicate that the type of relationship salespeople will develop with customers is influenced by their gender.

Women develop more intimate relationships and bond with their clients. For example, when asked how they work with their clients, 44 percent of women versus 34 percent of men selected “Feel personally responsible and dedicate myself to ensuring their success.” Twentyone percent of women versus 17 percent of men selected “Develop very close personal relationships with my clients.”

Men are more likely to have superficial relationships with clients. Twenty-nine percent of men versus18 percent of women indicated they “Have cordial relationships with their clients because we are both very busy.” Twenty percent of men compared to 17 percent of women “Keep a general pulse on what’s happening with clients after the sale.”

SALES STRATEGY | Differences - Deal Pursuit Risk

Deal pursuit can be defined as a salesperson’s natural propensity to work on certain size deals that is commensurate to his or her appetite for risk. For example, the nature of large deals is that there are great personal rewards for the salesperson who wins the deal. The second characteristic is the complex nature of the large deals. The decision is made over a period of time through a process that involves multiple groups of evaluators and senior level approvers that is typically measured in months. Therefore, it is riskier to pursue large deals.

Conversely, with medium-size deals, the purchase decision is typically made by a small number of decision makers, most likely at a lower level of the organization, with decision approval from mid-level management. They usually occur in a shorter period of time and involve less risk.

Overall, 57 percent of men and 58 percent of women indicated that it was true or very true that they would rather pursue a medium size deal that has a higher probability of closing than chase a much larger deal with a lower chance of closing. However, when the results are analyzed by category of response, we see that men and women may have deal-pursuit-risk-aversion tendencies. Twenty-three percent of women versus 15 percent of men were more likely to be highly risk averse and selected very true regarding their preference for medium-size deals, while 18 percent of men versus 11 percent of women would rather pursue a  riskier large deal.

SALES STRATEGY | Differences - Working on Deals

Now, let’s see if the study results reveal tendencies about which gender is more logical and which one isnmore instinctive. When study participants were asked to choose a response to, “When working on deals I tend to…,” 41 percent of women compared to 32 percent of menselected, “Follow my instincts.” Forty-one percentof men compared to 36 percent of women selected,

“Focus more on situations where I know there is a high probability of winning.” Twenty-four percent of men compared to 19 percent of women selected, “Take calculated risks when pursuing accounts.” Only 4 percent of women and 3 percent of men selected “Like to take big chances because they can have big returns.”

CAREER ORIENTATION | Similarities - Life Decisions

A career in sales requires decisiveness. Sales leaders have to decide upon the strategy they will implement to meet their revenue targets, how they will manage their organization daily, and whom they will hire next. Salespeople have to make continuous decisions about which accounts they will pursue and what they will say next to win over the prospective customer.

Sales requires the artful combination of structure and free thinking, process and people, and logic and instinct. Study participants were surveyed to understand the impact of logic and instinct on decision making. They were asked if they base important decisions that impact their life more on logic or instinct. As shown below, the results show virtually no difference between
men and women.

CAREER ORIENTATION | Similarities - Future Orientation

A salesperson’s personality will impact his or her selling style. One aspect of personality is whether someone is more likely to be a happy-go-lucky person, a planner who is fixated on the here and now, or someone who dreams about the future. That dream may be about fulfilling a fantasy that has been fostered since childhood or obtaining the financial peace of mind for retirement. To classify personas, study participants were askedwhich of three distinct depictions best described them. 

CAREER ORIENTATION | Similarities - Money Motivation

It’s not surprising to find that the majority of male and female sales professionals are motivated by money. 

CAREER ORIENTATION | Similarities - Handling of Failure

Successful salespeople are continually cataloging their successes and failures. They store patterns of individual and company behavior and link them to the sales process. From this base of intuitive knowledge they are able to create and execute account strategies. Their intuition also enables them to speak the right words at the right time to persuade customers to buy based upon their experiences with different types of people and past sales cycles.

Men and women exhibited similar tendencies in how they handled failure. When asked to complete the statement “When I think about the biggest mistakes I have made or goals I didn’t achieve,” 57 percent of men and 65 percent of women selected “I learn from them so they won’t happen again.”

CAREER ORIENTATION | Differences - Career Motivation

I’ve spoken to hundreds of salespeople and sales leaders over the years about how and why they got into sales. I found that their answers fell into four categories. I wanted to use this opportunity to quantify the different career motivations in general and specifically for men and women. The biggest difference is that for one out of three women compared to one out of five men, a career in sales came about through happenstance.


CAREER ORIENTATION | Differences - Sales Mentor

Inexperienced salespeople don’t know what they haven’t seen for themselves. Usually, they gain their experience through the school of hard knocks. Unfortunately, this takes time. But if they emulate a successful practitioner, this timeframe can be shortened and the predictability of results can be improved.

Sales mentors’ sales intuition has been honed by many years of customer calls; therefore, their judgment is respected and advice highly sought after. However, in a typical sales organization, role modeling occurs very informally and irregularly. Is a sales organization truly a mentor-based environment? What percentage of salesmen and saleswomen had sales mentors? The study results indicate that 54 percent of men and 59 percent of women had a significant sales mentor intheir life whom they wanted to emulate or impress. Conversely, 27 percent of men and 28 percent of women did not.


While results for men and women were very similar, the impact of having a mentor is quite different. The measurement of the previous year’s average quota attainment shows the greatest impact is for women. Women who had a sales mentor outperformed their counterparts who did not have mentors across the board. The only exception was for male inside sales
reps, who were 11 percent below their counterparts

CAREER ORIENTATION | Differences - Previous Year Annual Quota Achievement

Did salesmen or saleswomen have a more successful previous year? The results show that more men made their quota than women. Fifty-three percent of men reported making their annual quota last year compared to 43 percent of women. Twenty-four percent of both men and women were over 125 percent of quota, while 29 percent of men and 19 percent of women were between 100 and 124 percent of quota. At the low end of performance, one out of four men and one out of three women were under 80 percent of quota.

CAREER ORIENTATION | Differences - Previous Year Career Advancement Rating

In addition to being asked to report the quota attainment for last year, study participants were asked to rank their career advancement last year on a scale of 1 (low) to 10 (high). In other words, was last year a year in which they felt they successfully moved their career forward to the next level?

Overall, men reported an average rating of 6.78, while the average for women was 6.39. However, when the rating is broken down by number, two interesting differences between men and women are revealed. The first one is 25 percent of women ranked their previous year career advancement rating at four or below compared to 17 percent of men.

The second difference is at the nine rating. While all the other ratings between five and ten are basically equal for men and women, only 10 percent of women, gave a rating of nine, compared to 16 percent of men. Could something be holding back women from saying they’ve
reached the highest level of success?


I’d like to conclude this research report by asking you another question: “On a grade of A+ to F, how would you rate your overall career?” Based on the previously presented data, you might assume women would grade their careers lower than men. After all, one of four women rated their prior year's career advancement at the lowest level and one of three women achieved
under 80 percent of their previous year quota. But this is not the case. Overall, men and women ranked their careers similarly with one exception. Significantly more women graded their careers as A+ than men. 


What is the most important takeaway from this research project? Men and women use language differently. Words like competition, empathetic, and mentor can have different interpretations based upon a person’s gender. All the experiences of your life have determined the language you use. Just as no one else has had your exact life experiences, no one else speaks your precise language. Therefore, the language two people use to describe the same situation may be very different. In fact, your interpretation of the figures, charts, and statistics in this report are individual to you.

There’s another important takeaway from overall career rating figure. Whether you are a man or woman, sales is a truly great career choice. I do not think there are many professions where 72 percent of the men and 75 percent of the women in the field would grade their overall careers at B+ or higher. Based upon the thousands of sales professionals I’ve met, I’ll argue that the decision to pursue a career in sales wasn’t even theirs to make in the first place. Rather, they’re simply fulfilling their life’s destiny and lucky to be in a profession that is both financially rewarding and personally satisfying.

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