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Women mean business

Women are gaining a stronger foothold in the senior ranks of businesses. They tend to work more efficiently than men and offer creative solutions to problems. That's what the studies tell us. So why not push harder for this business solution?
John Kerry is – sort of. The US Democratic presidential nominee says women-owned firms are constantly "breaking down the barriers of the past and proving that the business world is no longer an old-boy network". Kerry was refering to the passing of his Senate bill last month safeguarding the funding of business centres in several US states. The language of the bill, indeed, its very name – the Women's Sustainability Recovery Act – packs a mild sense of desperation. Recovery implies, after all, a sort of post-illness cycle.

These are not desperate times for women. Far from it. About 34% of family-controlled firms forecast in 2002 that their next CEO will be a woman, up from 25% five years earlier, according to a survey by Babson College. The growing number of female-owned businesses is contributing to the change. Nearly half of all privately held companies in the US (10.6m) are 50% or more female-owned. Those numbers are up 17% on 1997. Babson College's Nan Langowitz believes that as more women start their own firms, it will become "more acceptable" to consider that a woman in the family might be "the most appropriate" to be included in the business and, ultimately, to succeed the owner.

More acceptable? It's difficult not to agree that as more women lead businesses, a real workplace balance – in the executive strata one would hope – will one day be struck. Hasn't it always been acceptable to consider a women to lead a business? When did more or less come into it? A recent survey of Fortune 500 companies found an unquestionable link between gender-diverse management teams and superior financial performance. As Terri Heggum-Allen writes on these pages, female-owned family firms do more with less and are nearly twice as productive as male-owned family firms. Controversial? No. A blow to the male ego? Probably. But it needn't be.

True, the number of women taking the reins at family-owned firms is on the rise – but the floodgates have barely opened. The tide, says family business expert Andrew Keyt, is turning. A major trend, he qualifies rather disappointingly, is 20 years off.

That's a long time. Kerry believes his new legislation will prevent the US government from continuing to short-change women entrepreneurs by ripping off the business centres that have helped them succeed. That's all well and good, but as any cynic will tell you, it's an election year in the US and half of the voting population is female.

Meanwhile, we all know that family businesses have unique problems. So why not let mum (or a least a woman or two) muck in at the high end? Be it succession, sibling rivalry or an exit strategy, if the studies are anything to go by, she'll solve the problem quickly and on the cheap – and keep shareholders smiling. Isn't that what smart business is about?

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