Sexism has always been a problem in sales. Just think of the terrible stereotypes of my profession, from Wolf of Wall Street to Glengarry Glen Ross — the “old boys network” environments all about being macho. It’s kept talented women away from the field, and made them very uncomfortable, all while giving sales a bad name.
In recent years, there have been some strong efforts to improve the culture of what we do. And it’s had some successes. But there’s another phenomenon going on that’s giving sexism in sales something of a resurgence. And now, due to a high profile incident, we’ve reached a tipping point.
It’s time for men like me to join with women to take action to stop this.
Speaker objectifies his wife
It took place at Hypergrowth, a conference in Boston. In front of thousands of sales professionals, a speaker who makes macho old-school showmanship his stock and trade went even further than most of us expected — even those of us who have seen his antics before. His comments were particularly shocking in the #MeToo era.
He decided to talk about his wife’s appearance and her body. The camera turned to her where she sat in the audience, projecting her onto the screen. He told the story of courting her as though she was a sales prospect, and referred to her as “that,” “it,” “chick,” and dumb dumb.” Then he discussed what they were likely to do on his private jet after the conference.
Another attendee, Allison Grinberg-Funes, later described her experience during this speech. In a post on Medium, she wrote: “I checked my phone: yep, still 2018. I looked around: no handmaids in red robes.”
How we got here
How did we get to the point in which a speaker would possibly think this is OK?
Overall, things have been getting better in sales. Hypergrowth had a mix of men and women, including people of different races, as speakers, and lots of good discussions. Overall in the industry, we’ve seen more consciousness of diversity and respectful discussion.
But at the same time, as social media has become such a powerful force, more and more people have looked for ways to distinguish themselves. Often, the loudest people get the most attention. And some people have gotten attention by capitalizing on aggressive, macho sexism. Shock value can help them stand out.
If you look at what’s happening in our culture, you can see this at play — and not just in sales.
When well-meaning people stay silent
In any industry, relationships matter. It’s easy for anyone to be afraid to speak out against sexism, for fear of coming across as being “too sensitive” or having no sense of humor. And in sales, where relationships are everything, the fear can be especially powerful.
That helps explain why the response to this offensive speaker was muted at the time. The room was quiet, with no booing. There were even a few nervous laughs and claps at times. A few women walked out, but not in a way that was noticeable. (And the seating arrangements made it particularly hard to walk out.)
But it isn’t up to women to lead the way alone in responding to this kind of thing. I myself was disgusted by what he was saying, but didn’t take action at the time.
Later, as I thought about it, I had had enough. So I posted a LinkedIn video saying it’s time for us to address this. It became the biggest post I’ve ever had. Clearly, more people shared my concern than I realized. (I followed up with a blog post headlined, “We Need to Talk.”)
Drift, the organization that runs Hypergrowth, has apologized for the offensive speaker. CEO David Cancel responded to Grinberg-Funes’ Medium post by saying, “I failed. I own it.” He promised to “learn from it and make sure nothing like that ever happens again.”
All those of us who want to stem the tide of sexism in sales should make that same promise.
So I’ve gotten together with some leading women in sales — Trish Bertuzzi, Lori Richardson, and Kasey Jones. We’re going to host a webinar on Wednesday, October 10th at 12:00 pm EST to talk about this and see if we can find some answers for how to move forward.
This won’t be a presentation. It also won’t be a male bashing session in any way. It’s going to be an open dialogue about the culture of our work, the challenges women face, leadership, perception vs. reality, and more.
In advance, we posted a survey inviting people to share their thoughts, ideas, and experiences. In response, we’ve been inundated with women describing sexism they’ve experienced, as well as men asking what they can do to diversify their teams and improve the culture.
The survey results are eye-opening. All sorts of things in a work environment — words, actions, and scenarios — may seem small but, as a collection, have a significant impact. We need to be conscious of these things and know how to address them.
Just like the rest of us, I need to learn as well. I thought I was pretty empathetic, but since having my daughter I’ve noticed in a whole new way how boys and girls are treated, and marketed to, differently. Even now, I probably still say or do things that make others uncomfortable. I’m a white male who, as far as I know, has never experienced discrimination. I’ve been praised and promoted based on “drive” and “passion,” while women get criticized for being too “aggressive.” Even after I became a VP, when my team was crushing its numbers, I’m not sure I would have noticed some inappropriate things they were doing unless they were particularly blatant.
I want to help bring about positive change. And there are many other good men who want the same.
Let’s take this moment as a rallying cry — not just for sales, but for any industry. It’s up to good men to join the fight. It’s a new era. And if men don’t join with women to stem this problem, it will only get worse. Let’s make it happen.
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