Uncovering a ‘gut feeling’ gender gap

Businesses may not see clearly on sexes’ approaches to sales forecasting

Do sales managers approach business forecasting differently based on their gender, and do women and men see their conclusions received differently within their organizations? You may have a hunch, but three Central Michigan University faculty members have data.

The trio studied how sales managers make forecasts, whether they see better results with quantitative analysis or "gut feelings," whether men or women are more likely to use each method, and whose forecasts are taken more seriously.

Their research, which will be published in upcoming issues of Business Horizons and the Journal of Marketing Analytics, found women more apt to use trusted methods of analysis but less likely to feel their results are valued within their organizations.

    Rebecca Dingus

    Researchers Rebecca Dingus, Jeff Hoyle and Holt Wilson are all part of CMU's College of Business Administration. Dingus and Hoyle are faculty members in marketing and professional sales. Wilson is a professor emeritus in the Marketing and Hospitality Department.

    Here are few questions and answers about their research and results.

    Q: What are some ways that the nearly 400 sales managers you surveyed for your research typically prepare and use sales forecasting?

    A: There is no single "right way" to prepare a forecast. The main goal is to guide business leaders to allocate a firm's human, financial and other resources in order to achieve their overall objectives. Decisions across many business units are made based on sales managers' predictions of future sales.

    Jeff Hoyle

    Q: The women and men you surveyed agreed that quantitative analysis yields better forecasts, but you found that "women calculate, men judge." What does that mean?

    A: Nearly everyone agrees quantitative forecasts are superior to qualitative forecasts. However, we found that women are more likely to actually incorporate this as a guideline when building forecasts. Women tend to calculate — quantitatively — while men are more likely than women to make a judgment or follow a hunch when building their forecasts. While current research does not evaluate whether there are noticeable differences in the accuracy of men's versus women's forecasts, there are many questions that arise and avenues to explore based on our calculate-vs.-judge finding.

    Holt Wilson

    Q: If women tend to use more modern quantitative forecast methods than do men, do organizations put more stock in women's predictions?

    A: In our survey, men reported feeling more strongly than women that their own forecasts are taken seriously within their organization. Celebrating and rewarding forecasts developed using superior methods (that is, quantitative) and which exhibit better accuracy would make these forecasts more visible within an organization. This would emphasize the use of better methods and the importance of accuracy, regardless of who creates such forecasts.

    Q: Culturally, do you think we overvalue hunches and gut feelings?

    A: The findings of this research would indicate that society does tend to overvalue gut feelings. We recognize that people "follow their heart" or "trust their gut" in everyday life, but how should this impact organizations?

    Psychology research supports that people who trust themselves more tend to rely more heavily on their gut feelings than those who do not trust themselves. Our data mimics that sales leadership has historically been male, as the male sales managers in our research study have many more years of experience than the women sales managers. These years of experience may make the men more likely to trust themselves and, thus, allow hunches to influence their forecasts.

    Similarly, women who are newer to these roles may also be more familiar with the use and benefits of modern tools for quantitative forecasting because they have more recent training and an urge to succeed in their newer roles.

    Of course, we offer this potential explanation based on our own hunch and the experience we have — this has not yet been empirically tested!

    Q: How could organizations' hiring decisions and training make a difference?

    A: Diversity in the workplace leads organizations to be more successful through improved outcomes related to decision making, profitability, productivity and retention, to name just a few. As sales roles of all levels have historically been male dominated, organizations should prioritize including more women in sales leadership.

    Within these roles, women and men should have equal access to programs that enhance their likelihood of success. For example, senior executives should review plans and expectations of all sales managers related to forecasting to make sure sales managers are trained to use the most effective methods, regardless of the forecaster's gender.

    Research suggests that women are less likely to receive training than men. And when they do, women are more likely to receive training in less mainstream areas — such as equality and diversity, or health and safety — than men, who are likely to receive training in areas related to business strategy.

    Everyone must be trained well, with quantitative forecasts emphasized. Additionally, organizational cultures should evolve to value everyone's work, such that all forecasts are taken seriously and accurate forecasts are rewarded.

    Q: What positive developments or trends have you found in your research?

    A: An easily overlooked input is how salespeople and sales leaders can gain the quantitative skills for good forecasting. One key finding from our study is that all sales managers, both men and women, agree that knowledge about forecasting among new sales hires has become more important over the past five years. This has definite implications for sales education, as the finding suggests that students in collegiate sales programs would be well served by having more forecasting in their academic sales programs.

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