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Unwritten ‘rules’ for women at the helm

Suzanne Lane  is program director at Loyola University Chicago Family Business Center.

Despite making up almost half of the workforce in the US, women still struggle to achieve the top positions. Suzanne Lane makes a few suggestions to women entering the workplace of their family business

As soon as Carly Fiorina was relieved of her position as CEO of Hewlett-Packard on 9th February, many in the business world called this yet another setback for women leaders. Some have claimed that companies will start to scapegoat women leaders for taking legitimate business risks; others have asserted that companies will now be more apt to use the excuse that women 'can't cut it'. However, Fiorina's departure can be seen in yet a different light: as a reminder of how few women there are in senior leadership positions in corporate America – and even fewer in other developed nations.

Catalyst, a leading research and advisory organisation on women's issues in the workplace, reports that women make up 46% of the US work force but only 5.2% of top earners and 13.6% of board directors in the Fortune 500. Fiorina's departure moves the number of women CEOs in Fortune 500 companies down a notch from nine to eight.
 
So apparently corporate America is lagging in its attempt to place more women in top positions. But how do family businesses compare?

According to the Raymond Institute American Family Business Survey, fewer than 10% of family businesses in the US have a woman CEO. On the upside, however, 34% of family businesses say the next CEO may be a woman.

But women executives are not without struggles in trying to attain top positions, particularly if their family businesses are led by men. After all, even though being related to the CEO may have its advantages (automatic pipeline to the boss), significant challenges remain for women executives based on societal norms ('women are natural caregivers'), as well as norms specific to the family ('Cindy's the baby of the family – she can be a part of new marketing team, but she can't lead it').
 
As a result, these norms have caused the creation of 'unwritten rules' for women in family business leadership. In other words, societal and familial norms have created invisible barriers to women's professional development in family businesses that are not necessarily talked about.

Women are more likely to be perceived in a familial role than as an executive
"Women are seen as either a mistress, a daughter, a wife, a mother – or a guy"
This quote was derived from an immensely popular article in the US business publication, Fast Company Magazine, about the perceptions of women in the workplace. Many women claimed that labels, such as wife or daughter, are placed on them in the workplace because these are roles that feel the most comfortable to male employees. However, when this labelling or 'role projection' occurs, women end up feeling belittled and believe that their work will not ever be taken seriously enough to move forward.
 
And for women in family firms, this problem can even be more profound. After all, unlike their female counterparts in non-family firms, women in family businesses actually do embody multiple roles in the lives of their male employees, often causing women to feel less in control over how this role projection could be managed. It is not easy to contradict Dad at work, when at home the norm is to allow him to have control.
 
As a result, role projection is not only about gender stereotyping; nor is it only about dealing with the many hats that one must wear while working in a family business – it's about both. Unfortunately, when the forces of these two phenomena are working together in a family business environment, they have the potential of being detrimental to women's professional development.

When working mothers take time off from work, it translates into lack of commitment to the business
One of the many aspects that family businesses are praised for, not surprisingly, is commitment to family. After all, a happy family can equal happy (family) employees as well as happy (family) shareholders.

But even family businesses do not always act in the best interest of family.  For instance, many family businesses in the US do not have specific policies in place for women (or men) to take time off work or reduce their hours to care for children. As a result, women (since they are still the primary caregiver) end up feeling stuck between a rock and a hard place:  they want to care for their children, but they do not want to be perceived as not committed to the business. One woman told me that she wanted to reduce her hours in order to spend more time with her newborn – but she felt that if she did, she would lose her board seat and her voice in the family.
 
As a result, competent business women, even in family businesses, may be forced to quit their careers to care for the family on account of the assumptions that are being made on working mothers' level of commitment. Last year in the US, a federal court held that an employer who assumed that a mother was less committed to her job because of home responsibilities was engaging in potentially illegal gender stereotyping.

So while it appears as if some court systems are stepping in to remedy this stereotyping, the workplaces themselves still have some catching up to do.

Women have less networks than men – so women must try harder to make contacts outside of work and family
Just as in non-family firms, women lack networks with other influential people who could potentially help them get ahead both personally and professionally. But it's not that women are purposefully excluded from these networks. Networking is about individuals bonding when they have much in common, and women are increasingly having more opportunities for this to occur. However, gender happens to be one heavily weighted factor that often determines whether that bond occurs or not. So in predominately male business circles, women are at a disadvantage.
 
Luckily for women in family businesses, although they may not have the gender bonds within their predominately male workplaces, they do have the advantage of internal networks, such as pipelines to relatives in influential positions in the company.  But despite the power of these internal, familial networks, women in family businesses are still looking for alternative ways to get ahead, whether it's learning new skills or meeting new people – all of which require expanding one's network beyond the family business itself. One woman told me that when she was younger she never thought she would need to network outside the family because, after all, she already knew the CEO, COO and CFO. Today, however, the woman wishes she had expanded her network much earlier, particularly because she no longer works for her family's business.
 
Rewriting the rules of the game
Due to all of the societal and familial forces at play, it's unlikely that these rules for women in family businesses can be rewritten overnight. Women and professional organisations dedicated to changing perceptions of women in the workplace, whether in the family business context or not, still have a lot of work ahead of them.

Below, however, are a few suggestions that may help young women entering the workforce better manage these rules and progress both personally and professionally within their respective family businesses.

Mentoring
Mentoring has been a buzzword for years now, but is it really happening?
 
Most external mentoring programs cater predominately to women executives who have already jumped some of the highest hurdles in their career. However, the only way that mentoring can make larger, significant impacts in women's professional development on a micro and macro level is if it starts early.
 
Young women in family businesses have the advantage of both male and female relatives who could become resourceful internal mentors. However, also establishing an external mentoring relationship with someone outside the business would allow young women to connect to larger, outside networks even sooner.

Encourage young women to join networks for women professionals
Although there are not as many organised networking organisations for young women professionals as there are for more established women professionals, there are still avenues for young women to turn to as they begin to develop professionally.  Young women should inquire with their local family business center about opportunities to join peer advisory groups specifically for young women professionals. There are other organisations, such as ExecuDiva in the US, which provide networking, peer connections and coaching; others, such as WorldWIT, provide connections to women through technology with local chapters in most major cities around the world.

Encourage the younger generation of men and women to make changes – and listen to them too
In their book, Millennials Rising, Neil Howe and William Strauss claim that the young women and men of the new generation to enter the workforce are "the next great generation". Howe and Strauss claim these individuals "are forging a new youth ethic of teamwork and civic purpose... seek work/life balance... and believe in their own collective power".

So don't overlook encouraging them to begin reshaping the mindsets of their peers about the roles of women and men in the family and in the business. Maybe the time of rewriting the rules for women in family business will come sooner than we think.  

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