This March, we celebrate Women's Month, an annually declared month that highlights the contributions of women today and throughout history, making their marks across sectors and in all industries. It is clear that the power and influence of women in family businesses is significant, and women have assumed far more leadership roles than ever before.
It is currently estimated that 18 percent of family business leaders globally are women.1 Traditionally, women in family businesses have played various roles, but many are not recognized for their leadership with titles and positions that have accurately reflected their work contributions and responsibilities.
Especially in multi-generational family businesses, first generation entrepreneurs did not necessarily have defined roles. Defining roles, at the time, was vague and that is still the case for many family businesses. A common example is the presumption that the husband will be the CEO, when in fact the business is run equally by both husband and wife. A more current workaround in such situations is that one spouse is named the CEO and the other is named the president, sharing executive duties and responsibilities.
Family businesses are unique and play a critical role in helping break glass ceilings that perpetuate gender roles. That said, as in any other business, it is important that family businesses take the time to recognize their own unconscious biases and perhaps acknowledge the ways gender stereotypes have reflected the roles given within a family business.
Awareness and education are starting points to encourage progress. Ultimately, the goal is to create a culture, a norm across all sectors and in all industries, where all people can come to the corporate table equally, with equal say, equal pay, and equal respect—even within their own family business.
So, how can this goal be achieved?
First and foremost, family businesses can consider sponsoring an unconscious bias training course for employees that will help identify key concepts and help shift the language in how to ensure the family workplace is welcoming, diverse, and provides equal opportunity. Men and women contribute to gender stereotyping, both inside and outside the workplace.
Removing stereotypes will require communication, understanding, and a willingness and desire to actually make a change in how a family business operates. A family business needs to establish a clear pathway for women to move into leadership roles and create an inclusive environment.
Second, family businesses are distinctive in that they often hold cultural values and traditions unique to the enterprise. As the data confirms, most leadership positions in family businesses are held by men. Perhaps, it is time to pause and ask why, or why still? Are both the men and women in the family given the same opportunities, from a young age, to learn the ins and outs of the family business?
Segregation of roles based on gender occurs both at home and in business. In a family business, where home and work life are often intertwined, those gender roles carry into the way the business operates. As future generations become more involved in family businesses, decisions on succession and leadership must be driven by merit and capability, not gender.
Another question a family business owner may ask is "Why is my leadership team dominantly male?" Dive deeper into the root causes. Are the women in the family being given the same opportunities to learn and develop the skills needed to run the family business in the same way that the men in the family have been?
Family businesses have an opportunity, and many would say a responsibility, to change the narrative. It may be more than mere fairness and equity that drive the decision to involve women in the business to the same extent as men—it may be a fundamental element of preserving the family business as an intergenerational success.
Finally, family businesses must be willing to take strides to implement change. Culture does not change overnight, and actions speak far louder than words. A family business may need to hold itself accountable to creating the shift.
Perhaps that means adopting organizational practices and policies that promote fairness to ensure greater gender diversity. Data has shown that women in leadership roles in family businesses are seen as role models to less-senior women and young female members of the family. Representation matters, and the sooner the younger generation can see both men and women taking on leadership roles, their own aspirations to one day do so are strengthened.
Including women in leadership and closing the gender gap at the workplace require a sustainable, long-term thinking approach. Family businesses can actually serve as leaders in the corporate world to demonstrate the wisdom of gender diversity because they are businesses that are quite literally built on relationships. In fact, many family businesses have already discovered and benefited immensely in doing so.
Family businesses have the potential to build up, empower, select, and support women to serve at the highest corporate levels. While there is a long way to go to create equal opportunity for women, family businesses can help lead the way.
1 The Power of Women in Family Business, STEP Project, November 2020, Page 2.