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Women Sales Engineers: More Than a Statistical Anomaly

FEATURE / 03.27.18 / Sara Lofgren

Ask any recruiter to find you a security sales engineer and they'll begin the depressing task of calling all the same engineers in town that have already been called by two other recruiting firms for the same position.

But ask them to find you a security sales engineer that is a woman, they'll likely just laugh. Perhaps they'll suggest you seek professional help. I'm not saying we don't exist, I mean I think, therefore I am? Possibly. But in my decade as a sales engineer in security, I've met three other women in the same role, out of hundreds and hundreds of sales engineers.

While it's anecdotal at best, I'll assert that about 1% of security sales engineers are women. I don't know that anyone has bothered to track it because we're so rare, we're more like a statistical anomaly than a measurable thing.

It makes sense of course, that a career born from the intersection of STEM, politics, sales, travel, and security, wouldn't necessarily be a place that a lot of women end up. But why so few?

To put it in perspective, over 20% of all STEM jobs in the US are held by women. I'll skip the part where we discuss getting girls interested in STEM. It's the other aspects of this role that need to be looked at: sales engineering isn't a career the attracts women, and it’s a shame because we are really good at it.

Paths to a Career in Sales Engineering

Outside of the STEM element, I believe there are three main aspects that keep women away from being a sales engineer – and all of them have the potential to be improved by employers in some way.

The first is the entry track. When I spoke to other women about this role, they told me they all found their way into it by accident. They were promoted into consulting or sales engineering from inside IT or project management, or they were recruited by a friend (usually a man) already doing the role.

None of them sought the job out or even knew it existed until they were nearly there in their career. Similarly, I slogged my way up from help desk, to systems admin, to field consulting, and finally to sales engineering. I was already nearly a decade into IT work before I had the opportunity.

When I asked men how they got into sales engineering, the story isn't quite the same. Many started in inside sales or sales engineering. They got recruited right out of college or shortly after starting IT work.

The irony of this is, from speaking to my colleagues who are men; like me, many didn't study IT or technology at all, but have degrees in economics, political science, or even other unrelated liberal arts degrees.

So clearly, the recruiting track could easily be adjusted to target women for these entry positions based on an aptitude for learning technology and a personality to sell. Setting a target percentage of women in these programs could definitely change the story.

Redefining Traditional Roles

The second obstacle to women in sales engineering is the enterprise sales culture. If we think back to the days of Mad Men and earlier, deals where large amounts of money change hands have typically been done by men.

These elaborate sales rituals that have developed include time spent on the golf course, smoking parlors, and the pub. Oftentimes, alcohol flows like water and the nights are long. But as I've found, these stereotypes aren't necessarily true and even if they are, sales engineers don't have to participate in any of this to be successful.

Where sales culture is slow to shift, corporate culture doesn't have to be. Being mindful of the kind of environment and events where all employees can feel safe can elevate the corporate culture overall without impeding sales success.

Addressing Work/Life Balance

The final element of the job that needs to be addressed is work/life balance. The travel demands of enterprise sales engineering for any organization can be extensive. The policies on deal credit can also mean that going on maternity leave is a problem.

When my third child was born while working at a former employer, I went back to work after only four weeks. My employer at the time didn't offer me more than three weeks of paid leave at a reduced wage, I didn't get commission credit for deals that closed during my absence, and I knew a massive deal where I had been running the POC was going to close. It was the wrong choice for my family but the only financial choice that made sense at the time.

Creating a quota structure and leave policy where engineers can get credit for work done regardless of family demands and allowing flexibility with family can improve the atmosphere - not just for women, but for anyone with a family. And designing SE roles where travel is more limited to local cities and onboarding is handled remotely can alleviate the travel strains.

I also believe (based on my own experience) that having more women in leadership roles within companies improves the culture and understanding of this.

Why Companies Should Care

So why should employers care? Women are good at being sales engineers and they elevate the culture of any sales organization. I have repeatedly had my managers ask me if I know any other women who would make good sales engineers. They've told me that the men on the team behave differently when I am in the room: the side conversations are less, the topics more focused, and the big picture business discussions become front and center rather than the deep-dive technology rabbit holes that many engineers tend to get hung up on.

And I've found that rather than an atmosphere of hostility and sexism, sales engineering organizations feel like an extension of family when I am away from home.

But hopefully, I won't always be the only woman in the room.

Sara Lofgren

About Sara Lofgren

Channel Sales Engineering Manager at Cylance

Sara Lofgren is the Channel Sales Engineering Manager at Cylance. She has been working in computer security for over a decade, with focus on solving enterprise security problems through the union of technology, people, and processes. Besides malware, her other main areas of interest include privacy, cryptography, and technology regulations. Sara lives in Minnesota with 4 kids, 2 dogs, a cat, and many rescue horses.