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Women in family business

Franziska Müller Tiberini has her own consulting company for family business. She lives in Zurich, Switzerland.

There are still very few women occupying the upper management levels in larger companies. Is this due to the difficulty in prioritising between business and family? Being part of a family business could offer a flexible coexistence of both

"One is not born but becomes a woman."
– Simone de Beauvoir

The history of family businesses in Switzerland is strongly linked to the history and development of the working and family woman. Both in theory and in international practice, education, role behaviour and tradition are considered to be the most important factors with regard to the equal status of men and women. The same seems to be true for Swiss family businesses. Some things have changed within the last 50 years. For instance, in politics, women have gained the right to vote on a national level only 30 years ago. And we're only recently seeing women elected to major political offices. But the changes are not happening just in the political arena; they also concern the economy and society in general. Compared to only a few women studying at universities after World War II, they now make up 50% of the students. Of those employed in the middle sector of the universities, 33% are now women, while of all the professors, 8.2% are women. In big companies there are still only very few women (about 2.6%) occupying positions on the upper management levels or on the board of directors (source: Professor M Osterloh, annabelle business, January 2002). However, a change has occurred with regards to the growing number of women who run family businesses. Unlike before, these women have now become visible. There are not only some well-known women heading family businesses, but also more and more reports in business papers about women in managerial positions.

Unfortunately, there are no official statistics about family enterprises and therefore no figures about the percentage of women in these small- and medium-sized businesses. All we know is that more and more women are now gainfully employed, even if most of them part-time. This statistic is on the rise, especially in Switzerland: every fourth business there was founded by a woman. And it is likely that the percentage of women in businesses will only continue to increase.

The history of family businesses
There is a great tradition of women in Swiss family businesses. Even today, our social structures are still those of the agricultural society. They have survived industrialisation and were adopted by industrial family businesses. Women have always been an important part of the net product of a farm or a company – they just weren't paid or officially registered as workers, a practice which hasn't completely died out. Women were in charge of some of the most important departments such as finances (including the monitoring of housekeeping money) and the employment and supervision of the personnel (farm-hands, etc). In a typical family business it is still the woman who carries the main responsibilities of accounting, the employment of personnel, the creation of a good working atmosphere, as well as the preservation of the value system of both company and family. It is now widely acknowledged that women had and still have a key position. On the other hand, the position of the men within a family business has remained as it was in the agricultural society: when it came to representing the farm outside the family, it was considered the man's job, be it at the local pub or at official events. Today, it is still the man who represents the finances outside the home/business. Meetings with a bank often happen without the women, who not only do the bookkeeping in small- and medium-sized companies, but also the finances. Strangely enough, the economic upturn of the fifties and the sixties has reinforced this, as it was regarded chic not to let women work. Our wage system was also conceived according to this, which is probably why women nowadays still earn less than men for the same job and the same responsibility. Until a few years ago it was assumed that women did not have to support a family.

Quite a lot has changed. One thing, however, will never change: motherhood. Describing the overlapping of the different roles of mother/working woman/wife, it becomes immediately apparent that it isn't easy to do justice to everyone. Also, the development of a woman in the different roles often takes place in different ways. The art is to recognise that the focus cannot be simultaneously on all areas. Depending on the moment in life, priorities shift and overlap differently. In order to clarify this, and based on my own work in family businesses, I would like to distinguish – albeit in a simplified manner – three types of women: the traditional woman, the flexible woman and the independent woman.

The traditional woman
The traditional woman's main roles are that of mother, housewife, wife, social companion and the one who listens to all problems coming from inside and outside the family. She mainly lives according to the needs of her family. The satisfaction of her own needs is a low priority, if it exists at all. The success of her husband is her success. She stands by her man with all her strength. In a harmonious marriage, the moment the children leave home is not very problematic. However, if the marriage is not harmonious, the variety of the problems can lead to a smaller crisis and a lack of self-esteem until the woman rediscovers her own interests and needs; it can also lead to depressions and big family dramas leading to divorce.

The flexible woman
The flexible woman assumes several roles. She is clearly aware of her personal needs and is always trying to reconcile her own needs with the needs of her family and her husband. Her marriage can be described as a partnership which is 'subject' to the rhythm of her husband. Most of the time she manages to get by. She often feels drained, but is nevertheless prepared for the phase in her life without the children – which does not exclude the possibility that she could undergo a small crisis as well.

The independent woman
From the onset the independent woman has a clearly defined role as a working person and sees herself as an autonomous personality. The tasks she is confronted with as mother, housewife and wife are solved together with her partner. With the exception of her role as the wife, professional help can take some of the load off of her. She has her own sphere, independent from the family, including her job, various engagements and her circle of friends. For her, the separation from the grown-up children is part of the healthy and natural development of the family. While giving her more personal independence, this process can still be a painful one.

How does the future look?
So, how does the future look for women in business? First, the good news is that for women in Switzerland, the basis – the possibility of receiving a good education – is guaranteed, even though there are still many lines of work that are not easy to take up as a woman. Transposing the equality between men and women into daily life will take somewhat longer. There are several reasons for the slowness of this change and it will be a long process until women can be found at the head of companies in a similar number to men. We are dealing with a fundamental change in our society that entails the acceptance of new roles, the establishment of new role models, the equal education of children regardless of their sex (eg, not spoiling sons), a partnership-minded way of treating marriage at home, at work and in society in general, as well as in the closer circle of friends. Marriage and family retain their importance. The difference is only that women and men tackle problems together and work as a team. But the question remains as to whether or not this should be regarded as a positive development of the present options.

In such a renewed society the core competencies of the woman play a central role: the conveyance of value systems and their integration from generation to generation. The upholding of a healthy family culture is crucial for the survival of a business over the generations. Here the motto should be 'family first' and not 'business first'. This will also lead to a greater openness in the discovery of new talents within the family.

The reasons why this change is only slowly coming about have to do with the prevailing power structures and networks. They are still strongly dominated by men and no one likes to hand over power. The 'glass ceiling' still exists – in Switzerland, too. Another reason is due to nature: motherhood cannot be delegated. Nevertheless, the responsibility of why women are not gainfully employed to the same extent as men lies with our society. It is still regarded as normal that the woman is responsible for the family. Also, the idea of official recognition and active support of family work is still widely rejected.

Family and business
Family businesses offer a special opportunity for the flexible coexistence of family and work. For men and women who aren't satisfied with an either-or-option, the family business can be the ideal place where a woman can find fulfilment both as a family woman and a working woman. As opposed to a regular employee-employer relationship, the tasks and working hours in a family business can be individually adjusted to changing requirements. In general, women are still not appointed to official positions in the board of directors, the upper management or the family board. This is often due to men advising them against it instead of encouraging them to become involved and stepping to the foreground.

Opportunities also exist in the professions surrounding family businesses, especially the consulting field. It is interesting to observe how family businesses seek advice. How many women consult family businesses on a professional level? Their number is still small. Why? I don't have a clear answer for that. There are more and more women who work in consulting, such as lawyers, trustees, tax consultants, strategy planners and the like. In the area of human resources there are already at least as many women than men.

There is every reason for employing a woman as a family coach. Women with a family can rely on valuable first-hand experience. They have learnt to take notice of individual needs and requirements, they are used to supporting their husband, their children and the company. These are very important assets for coaching work. Many women have 'lived' this coaching role long before consultants have defined it as such. It remains to be seen whether family businesses will profit from these female talents by engaging professional coaching women.

A will and a way
The roles of the woman and especially the family woman in family businesses are many-sided and complex. An important prerequisite for success is also that the woman possesses the necessary skills and has the will to be involved.

It is therefore important that a woman asks herself the following questions:

What do I want from my personal life? What are my professional ambitions? Which role am I playing? Active or passive? Which are my priorities as: wife, mother, mother-in-law, daughter, daughter-in-law, sister-in-law? How do I communicate my priorities? With a certain amount of will, there is always a way.

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