Men have historically dominated the sales industry. While opportunities for women in sales have increased at entry levels over the past couple of decades, very little has changed at the top. Executive sales roles are still dominated by males.

In honor of International Women's Day--and this year's Pledge for Parity campaign theme--organizations need to take a closer look at their sales leadership and make a commitment to drive greater gender diversity. In addition to attracting and retaining the best talent, research shows that gender equality at the leadership level improves an organization's performance and revenue growth.

Significant Gender Disparity Exists in Sales Leadership Positions

Because women make up 40 percent of the sales workforce, it may appear on paper as if the gender parity gap in the sales industry isn't that large. The reality is that most--if not all--of the growth has occurred in entry-level positions. The representation of women in sales leadership positions is still incredibly low.

According to findings from LinkedIn, as sales positions increase in seniority, the percentage of women decreases. In fact, only about 1 in 5 women in sales holds a VP or higher role. Furthermore, the LinkedIn survey also shows that the percentage of female executives in sales is growing slower than in other industries.

This isn't the only area where sales is falling short when it comes to gender equality. If you look across all industries, the biggest gap in wages between men and women is in sales. To be exact, women in sales earn 64.4 percent of what their male counterparts earn. The second widest gap occurs in the production industry, where women earn 71.4 percent as much as men.

Why Sales Leadership Needs More Women

There are many reasons why we need more parity in sales leadership.

First, we need more women in sales leadership simply because inequality in the workplace is unacceptable. Women are equally ambitious and knowledgeable in the field, which means that there's no excuse for such a disparity. In a day and age in which people are fighting for equality on all fronts, women in sales leadership need a voice.

Second, women have been shown to outperform men in multiple leadership competencies. According to research by Zenger Folkman, women actually outscore their male counterparts in all but 1 of 16 identified leadership competencies. In fact, in 12 of the 16, women were actually far more equipped by a significant margin. And, as one excerpt from the report reads, "Two of the traits where women outscored men to the highest degree--taking initiative and driving for results--have long been thought of as particularly male strengths."

Finally, women and men simply bring more to the table when they come to it together. Businesses have been shown to benefit with gender diverse leadership teams.

A study by McKinsey & Company shows that companies with more diverse workforces perform better financially. Specifically, companies in the top quartile for gender diversity have been shown to financially outperform those in the bottom quartile by 15 percent.

Furthermore, research shows that quota attainment for women in sales is 3 percent higher on average than their male counterparts.

Management Needs to Lead the Change

The solution to the disparity between men and women in sales leadership positions isn't as simple as "leaning in" and listening. Management needs to make a change. There needs to be a significant commitment to providing equal accounts, leveling out pay rates, and actively seeking diversity in hiring decisions. Executives must mentor men and women, and provide leadership training to both.

Additionally, women need to be given more opportunities. There are companies and sales professionals who are helping to lead the way by hiring women in top sales leadership positions, educating the industry to help close the gender gap, and advocating for women in sales leadership. Here are a few notable examples:

LiveHive, a California-based company and provider of a leading sales acceleration platform, recently hired a woman to lead its rapidly growing sales organization in an emerging market. LiveHive's Chief Revenue Officer, Jennifer Brandenburg has more than 20 years of senior executive sales experience. As regional VP, CRM On-Demand sales at Oracle, she increased ASP by 100% and closed over $16 million in revenue annually.

Brandenburg states: "Sales organizations that don't embrace diversity at the management level are missing out on a competitive advantage. In managing sales organizations for more than two decades, I've consistently found that gender and ethnically diverse teams perform better. It makes me proud to work at a company where women comprise the majority of our executive leadership team."

Another good example is Salesforce, but for a different reason. While they do have women in leadership positions--including Maria Martinez as President of Sales and Customer Success--it's more their outspokenness on the topic and their constant pursuit of closing the gender gap that makes them unique. They're extremely open about the parity that exists both in their own organization and on an industry level. They even devoted an entire day at Dreamforce 2015 to the topic.

There are also a number of successful women who have branched out to launch their own companies and speak out against lack of parity in the industry. These women include Jill Konrath and Lori Richardson--both of whom participated on a panel entitled "The Payoff for More Women in Sales" at the aforementioned Dreamforce event.

One of the most successful females in sales leadership, Konrath founded Sales Shebang--renamed as WOMEN Sales Pros in 2015--to support women in B2B sales. According to its website, WOMEN Sales Pros shines a light on women sales experts, women in sales leadership, and women individual contributors in B2B companies. The organization hosts an annual "Rev It Up--Sales Leader Summit" for all sales leaders on topics of sales growth and sales team diversity.

Long viewed as one of the most influential women in the industry, Richardson is the current president for WOMEN Sales Pros and writes frequently about the need for greater gender parity in sales on her Score More Sales blog.

Sales Can't Wait to Close the Gender Leadership Gap

To maintain the competitive edge, sales organizations need to start now to close their leadership gap. Companies need to join organizations and leaders such as those mentioned in this article and--in the spirit of International Women's Day--do their part to increase sales leadership opportunities for women.

Hiring women in sales leadership roles isn't just about equality: it's about producing a stronger, more competitive--and more rewarding--business landscape.

Published on: Mar 8, 2016
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.