After being traditionally excluded from the succession process, women’s role within the family business is finally changing. This shifting trend coincides with the leadership transition from Baby Boomers to younger generations. The fundamental, generational difference in attitude about gender is helping to fuel this progress; however, as Professor Francesca Maria Cesaroni knows first-hand, obstacles persist.

Full Professor at Italy’s University of Urbino and co-author of “Do dreams always come true? Daughters’ expectations and experience in family business succession”, Professor Cesaroni has interviewed countless women around the world about the challenges of maneuverability in their family businesses.

For many, unequal expectations for sons and daughters continue to colour the family business experience. However, Professor Cesaroni believes that to achieve success and sustainability, families must level the playing field by adopting an inclusionary approach that taps on all available talent.

WiFB spoke with Professor Francesca Maria Cesaroni about her research and how she believes it will influence the future of women in family business and entrepreneurs alike.

Why do you think the conversation around women and family business is changing?

I believe that younger generations think differently about the relationship between genders. Both sexes are more open about gender equality than generations before them.

A contributing factor is that girls today have greater access to higher education than their mothers and grandmothers. This translates to a higher number of well-educated women pursuing an entrepreneurial career path, and I think that the future business world will embrace this.

The conversation is also related to succession. The generation of entrepreneurs who started their businesses after the Second World War is transitioning leadership to the next generation. This is creating a problem for many family firms. When family business owners choose their successor, it’s important that they consider both daughters and sons, especially if their daughters are talented and well-educated.

A third factor is the stream of interest directed towards women as part of a cultural movement. Over the last decade, scholars and researchers have shifted their focus from the obstacles and barriers that women face in family businesses to ways of creating better business environments that enable women to reach their full potential. Daughters are no longer viewed as a problem to solve but as a resource to value and an opportunity to seize.

Would family businesses transition with greater success if more women were included in succession strategies?

The right question is not whether women are better than men. The problem is that men and women should be considered equal when family business owners choose their successors. Daughters and sons should have the same opportunity to be selected as a successor. The decision should be based on their abilities, skills and competencies, not their gender. If the best candidate for the job is chosen, family businesses will set themselves up for greater success.

Where does Italian culture stand on the subject of women in family business?

Italy is not very open towards women in economics, politics and other fields. The family business is still very traditional in Italy.

This seems counterintuitive. If you look at education statistics, a higher percentage of girls graduate and with better grades than their male counterparts. Girls are well prepared and sometimes even better prepared than their male colleagues.

However, when it comes to professional opportunities, women have more difficulties than men in most work environments, including family businesses. The prevailing idea is that sons are better as future leaders than women, even though the data would seemingly belie this conclusion. The situation is improving, but the number of women leading family businesses in Italy is still very low.

Photo by Ante Hamersmit on Unsplash

What do you think is the best way to make progress with women and family business?

It’s not easy, but I think cultural change is the biggest step, and families themselves could play a large role in this. Mindsets and attitudes often begin when children are very young, as they experience cultural gender models and different socialisation paradigms based on their gender.

It’s still very common for fathers to involve only their young sons in the family business. They bring their sons with them into the business, and they speak to them about their future as the leader of the company.

Conversely, daughters are often left at home with their mothers and relegated to non-business-related tasks. It’s easy to understand why daughters sometimes decide to study topics unrelated to their family business or choose careers outside of the family firm.

However, even outside of the family business, women can still feel the influence of the messaging they received from their family when they were growing up. The education daughters receive from their families is very important for shaping their career.

Is a daughter’s relationship with her father influential in her role in the family business?

Absolutely. In my research, I have met a lot of women who feel that their fathers still treat them as ‘their little girl’. They sometimes treat them as more of a responsibility than as an employee. In extreme cases, some fathers even attend customer meetings or go on business trips with their daughters to satisfy their own need to offer protection.

These micro-events in a family business have a significant impact on a woman’s role in the business. Brothers and mothers also contribute to this dynamic, sometimes through hidden factors that encourage acceptance of the status quo.

I’ve seen this play out in entirely different fashions via the same mechanisms. Some daughters are forced to enter the family business and even expected to become the business leader. This expectation sometimes comes at the expense of the daughter’s ambitions and dreams. Women can face a moral obligation to follow the family’s wishes, and this is often stronger for girls than for boys.

In addition to changing the conversation surrounding women in business, what other changes do you expect to see as the next generation fully occupies the family business space?

The word that immediately comes to mind is ‘diversity’. Diversity offers a rich advantage because people with different points of view can arrive at better decisions and choices and create greater synergies between contrasting sensibilities and perspectives.

Family businesses can benefit immensely when brothers and sisters contribute equally to the family’s cause. This type of cooperative environment allows families to cast the widest net possible, enriching their competencies, skills and ability to manage their company.

In family business and in business in general, it is important to take advantage of a company’s greatest resource, and that resource will always be people.

Francesca Maria Cesaroni
is Full Professor of Business Administration at the University of Urbino Carlo Bo, Department of Economic, Society, Politics. She teaches accounting and entrepreneurship and small business at the School of Economics, University of Urbino. Her research focuses on SMEs, entrepreneurship, women-owned firms, family firms and succession processes. She is the Director of the Research Centre on Entrepreneurship and Small-Medium-Sized Firms, University of Urbino, Italian Vice-President for ECSB-European Council of Small Business and Co-Editor of the journal Piccola Impresa.