Despite a significant shift in perspectives in the conversation on women in family business, women still face significant challenges when it comes to the roles they are expected to fill.

From Type-cast to Transformation: The Changing Narrative of Women in Family Businesses
Fredda Herz Brown; image courtesy of the subject

Even today, women are frequently type-cast in positions that provide emotional support to other family members — chief emotional officer, for example — while positions of greater responsibility or influence are taken by husbands, brothers, or other male family members. And for those women who do ascend to top tier positions within their family firms, an entirely new set of complex hurdles lay before them. But even with these persistently familiar impediments, women are steadily transforming the family business space.

In this episode of WiFB Conversations, Fredda Brown, Founding Partner of the family consulting firm, Relative Solutions, and Ramia Marielle El Agamy discuss how women are leveraging catalysts, such as inheritance and generational wealth transference, in conjunction with self-reliance and their formidable skillsets to reshape family businesses around the world. Fredda and Ramia also talk about adaptation, preparation, and key strategies women can use to navigate through and upward in their organisations, along with the steps that lead to success once they arrive at the top.


R: Fredda welcome to the conversation on Women In Family Business. We’re so excited to have you on the show today.

F: Thank you. I’m so excited to be here.

R: I want to start this conversation with something that you and I discussed in a previous call that we had together, which was when this conversation around women and family business actually started out.

I feel like you’re one of the pioneers of this topic, and I really feel like we need to start this conversation and paying you your dues for having  thought of making this into a conversation quite like, I think you mentioned about three decades ago already, when you had the first workshops around this.

Tell us a little bit about the narrative at that time. What prompted you to say, it’s worth us having this conversation and what was the response you were getting at the time from family enterprises and your peers in the research and consulting world?

F: Actually there were two women slightly before me, Barbara Hollander and Matilde Salganicoff who started a seminar which then expanded to a weekend for Women In Family Businesses and out of that- and the need that they saw were young women who wanted to be in their family business and didn’t quite find a place for it or they were in their family business and outlined kinds of positions and we’re wanting the opportunity to talk to other women.

So we got them together and I started working with them and both of them have now passed away, but they started it. I continued it and the field had interesting reaction. But that time, I think I shared with you funny stories about, even when there would be an owners’ meeting of family, big organizations, trade organizations, they would split the women.

They assumed the women were the spouses, there could never be a man as the spouse. And the women were the spouses and they’d work with the men as the owners, as if the women had nothing to do with it. And the women were in another room basically getting their whatever kind of conversation would go on and the notion that women would have any [impact] and that they would have anything to say about what might be going on as owners was just not even thought of.

So it started from just that, that notion, I think you have called it the chief emotional officer, which I found to be a real negative to treat women and that was sort of an elevation of that. Like, well, they’re the chief emotional officer and their husbands are the CEOs of the companies, that’s the more important one.

Then the other thing that started to happen, I don’t know whether you’ve seen this but wee certainly still see a bit of it, is that foundations started to form later in this 30 year period, and the women became those who headed the foundations until their husbands left the businesses. And then the husbands started to buy for the physicians and the foundations. So that became another area of interest, but it really grew out of the families that I was working with and seeing the way families were treated and joining with Barbara and Matilde to doing something different about it.

That was a challenge, well it’s still a challenge.

R: It still is. That’s why, unfortunately, this podcast is still necessary. I wish it wasn’t, but I think what’s really interesting about the way that you look at this is that, of course you have this time span over which you can look at it and you’ve seen the changes that this is important to acknowledge women and their contributions in the family enterprise. But I think what’s also important is there’s an actual macro- economic shift.

Women are actually coming into their own wealth wise, and we know that there’s a huge amount of transference coming our way right now, especially towards the millennial generation where we’re looking at a really large percentage of women now also coming into quite considerable means into family wealth. So women inheriting wealth, as silly as it sounds still quite a recent phenomenon.

F: Well, inheriting wealth that’s equal to their brothers. Well, it used to be that wealth would come down to the males and now they’re equally getting it. So that’s really significant.

R: That’s the equal part is significant. And also I would say, I guess, an unprecedented opportunity of creating wealth.

And I think that’s another thing that’s really shifted in the time that we’ve been looking at this. I would say even in the time that I’ve been talking about this, the last ike 12, 13 years, even in that time, we’ve seen a massive shift in how women are being encouraged, what kind of options are even open to them.

So talk to me a little bit about what that has meant for you around this conversation, when you’ve seen that now, actually there’s an outside pressure that there’s actually this large pool of women, where this has become a relevant conversation. What is your view on this? How do they take on these roles? Is it different from how their male counterparts are acting? What are your main key observations?

F: Right. So first there was one other thing that you didn’t mention, which has always been the case is that, women outlive their husbands in general. And so one of the things that most of the- when we talk about this great transition of wealth to the next generation, what oftentimes people forget is that women get it first.

When their spouses died, they get it first and then they pass it on to the children. So you’re not only talking about that group down, there are the women who are going to get it, but the women who have it and who have a tremendous commitment to making sure that the next generation really get it when they are past that wealth, that they’re prepared better for that wealth and they prepare for it.

And so one of the things that happened with this research study that Dennis and I did for the Relative Solutions Group was that we were really interested in the changes that you’re talking about. And so we divided our research sample into, it was a very interesting issue because we divided our research sample into those who were primarily inheritors.

Those who created the money and those who inherited from their spouses or in some instances co-created. And they also had to have had children. So we were trying to look at exactly what you were talking about, which is, what is the difference? And they were all- there was a great number of these women and we were trying to look at their life journey.

What was interesting is that the study, when it was first published, our collaborators in this study were not so interested in the life journey of how these women began to see it. So they took one piece of the data and we later have explored this data, which tends to look at it. But there are many changes I think, for this group, because we have this middle group of women who this group of 40 women are probably now in their fifties and late fifties, et cetera, they saw as their major obligation and what spurred them on to even integrate the notion of wealth into their lives was their children and what they wanted to do with their children. That was the motivation. They saw money very differently too than men saw money.

So what we’re beginning to see is this beginning shift in the way money is viewed in families and how, what’s a women’s place with that. They took on a tremendous amount, more of power and learning, but they did it because they wanted it to be different for their children than it was for them.

R: So it’s like a multi-generational perspective on the whole thing, the study that you mentioned in that we’re basing our conversation on as well, so the evolving experiences, first of all, what a great choice of word, because it is evolving. Of course, these things never matter to the same extent, depending on what stage we’re at as women in our lives, money, work, family and life choices. Also interesting distinction there, I would say so really fascinating title in and of itself and a fascinating study.

My main curiosity was picked by one thing. When we talk about wealth, when we talk about consequence coming to women, I guess we tend to equate it in our minds to a certain sense of independence that comes with that and there’s a certain sense of power to transfers to us when we have the means to make decisions.

My big question to you is, how does that strike you? Does wealth equal to more freedom for women or is that something that you feel is more of an illusion?

F: No, I actually do think it is more freedom. Most of these women in this study and I think it’s true for other women is that their mothers told them actually, almost all of these women were very clear about their mothers told them that this would provide a pathway for them to pursue their interests in life.

And it would allow them to develop their self-reliance which- or when you think about the money messages from their fathers and the money messages from their mothers, the money messages from their mothers was you will be much more self-reliant. If you do this, you will be able to pursue your personal development and you will be able to be of service to the world and your family.

And so having this money for them was not so much connected to work on the mother’s side, which it was connected to it for the father work and success, for the mother it was more connected to your personal freedom, your ability to pursue what you want to pursue in life, which when you think of it, their mothers generationally didn’t have that. And they focused on that for their daughters and they focused on making sure for them, understanding money, understanding how to use money and use money in a powerful way to provide these pathways was really important for their daughters.

They may not have had the work positions to pass on or those kinds of things, or having a spot for them or having the money. Clearly their fathers controlled the money in that generation, and their fathers taught them a little bit about how to do that. But their mothers provided this sort of sense about self-reliance and personal development, which was very important to these women.

R: What about the typical kind of backlash that you feel like women are dealing with now, as well as a consequence of this? Because of course not, everyone’s mindset has evolved at an equal speed. What makes a women that take on that kind of new position within the family enterprise or the family office, or just generally the family’s wealth, what makes them vulnerable? What are the downsides to this kind of a development and what lays them open to well, for lack of a better word, I guess, attack or negative comments?

F: That’s a really interesting one. It was really in some of the research data, but it’s certainly there in my personal experience with women. And that is that one people look for more, they look for places for women to fall down and the pressure on women is very different, especially in a family business.

If you’re in a family business, sure, they handle a multitude of roles. They handle the expectations still of the older generation, which is you should be the way you are- for instance, the notion between a father and a daughter about you’re supposed to be taking care of your kids or your family at the same time, they’re expecting them to move ahead in their actual career path.

And so there’s always this multitude of things that pushes and pulls that she responds to. Whereas if her brother had the position, just think of it. If her brother had the position was, just get successful, bring our business this way. And there are just many poles on them in terms of trying to manage the family role that they have as well as the business role. So there’s a tremendous amount of pressure there.

In addition to that, I think there is the wealth community while we are noticing, wealth advisors, those people who are out there who service those who are wealthy, I think are just starting to come to terms with the voice of women. So what does it mean that a woman speaks and being in a room with a couple and talking only to the man versus turning and facing a woman, asking her some direct questions, thinking that the women don’t have the answers to this, or even beginning to plan with them. One of the things that was really clear in this research study that I think makes it really important for the wealth advisors to take a look at it for families to think about is that, women make a lot of the important decisions around money.

And they make a lot of important decisions and therefore talking to them becomes really important. And it doesn’t matter whether they generated the wealth, whether they inherited it or whether they somehow came to it by being married to somebody who was wealthy. They have a tremendous amount of knowledge about it and need to be recognized for it and are continuously struggling with, “Hear me, I have a voice to speak. I own this money. This is my money.” Not just owning it by the actual, “it’s in my handbag,” but owning it in the spiritual sense that they own it.

R: Fredda you’re in this great position to be able to answer this question. What kind of education research and support systems should any woman in this kind of a position or any woman aspiring to increase her influence in the family enterprise or in the family wealth pursuit? What do they need, what should they be reading?

F: I think that you- of course, you always have to be prepared in the area that you’re going into, but I think that there is a whole bunch of other things that I think are important for women to get prepared and one is, I think the women that I’ve seen that have moved with slight degree of more comfort are women who come into their family enterprise let’s say if we’re forward, just focusing there. If they come into their family enterprise with a good deal of comfort in their skin, in their area of expertise so that they don’t enter, they’re not in the business, sort of growing up in the business where everybody watches their growing up and sees any early mistakes.

They come in with their cloak of confidence and expertise. At least I bring that with me. I know I’m really good. Other people have told me I’m really good at this, which gives you this sense that when you’re there and people tell you you’re not so good. You know it’s not just you, you’ve got something with you that already tells you. We could say, three years, five years of work outside, which everybody says, it’s like, we throw those numbers around, but the fact is for women, that’s really important to have a sense that you’re you internally, know that you’ve gotten somewhere on your own in other places and you’ve done that. So women that I’ve seen who had less anxiety about it do that.

The other piece of it, I think is really, I always have read outside my area of expertise. So I read a lot on leadership. I read a lot on systems. I read a lot on resilience. I read a lot on all of these other things, and I try to think about them in what I’m doing. And I make sure that I do that and I also have always had a group of women. Aside from the women, aside from the people I work with every day building my team. And I still have it. I say to women who are entering their family enterprise is, start building your team early. Those people that you know you can count on, separate from whoever else. Build an internal team, but also build a group of women. Three two,  however many you can get going, who you can go to know that, whatever you say, they’re going to take it. They’re going to hear it. And they’re going to help you strategize for what you might need to do.

R: I like to call these women my truth keepers. If you’re lucky you have some that will go with you for many years, but most likely there will be changes as to who should belong to that group, depending on where you are. I’m personally a really big advocate of women seeing this age of technology in the light of what it is, it truly is the greatest, greatest thing that’s ever happened to the women’s movement in my view. And I was just wondering how you see, the age of the internet and the internet of things and the role of women and how this enables or hinders them in pursuing the things that we’ve just discussed.

F: Yeah, I love that term truth keepers. I also think truth keepers are not just people who keep us the way we are, but they push us to look at ourselves at different ways and they’re keepers of the truth, so we should do it. So I think that’s a great terminology. I think the strength of women in not only having this smaller group, but also having a sense that you belong to other people you’re not alone. And this age of the internet and Zoom like you and I are doing, makes you feel not alone. You know that you could do a Zoom meeting with whomever and seeing someone and connecting with them.

I think that has just that sense of, there’s other people out there, is so important for women to know it’s not just their truth keeper group, which is a smaller group, and it does change over time. But this broader sense that there’s loads of other people out there doing it. But the other thing is, I think women have handled the age of internet much better. And the age of using things on computers much better than men have. I think men have been less likely- They see it more as a burden and they don’t quite figure out there are the technology pieces, I’m an older woman and I have even figured out the technology pieces.

My experience is, that most women are better at figuring that out and utilizing it than guys do. There’s a degree of comfort and the sense of that is so much better with women than what I see with guys.

R: What do you feel this particular conversation will need in terms of research and topic focus for you in the future? What would you like basically women in the family enterprise space to talk about more, which conversations do you feel like we should be focusing on?

F: The strategic use of self. Thinking about the larger context when you’re in a team context and you’re working in a mixed setting, how do you begin to think about what we voiced and what we don’t voice and how we think about the balance of that, what’s important culturally and how do we speak that in and get it across without carrying out within an unconscious way, that becomes really important to me.

I also would love to follow up, honestly, with these 40 women and the children they raised because these children in this study are probably- Most of them are probably close to their late twenties or early thirties. I would think that it would be interesting to see with all the effort that these women put into teaching their kids the best parts of what they got and not teaching them the negative parts. What’s been the difference in this group, seeing the generational difference of what worked, what did they do that works so that we can do more of that and do less of the things that don’t work would be really, really important to do.

I think the other piece is advisors are very strong models. Each of us advise in the form of written advice or working with clients or working with cohorts, we have very powerful positions. And I think that we need to be really clear or get pretty clear about what our view is, and so that we don’t walk into a system and end up being continuing the institutionalization of some of these older ideas.

We need to take some responsibility for what do we think, how do we help a family that doesn’t even acknowledge the gender differences in the way they are acting with their kids, and how do we deal with that, and how do we go forward with that in a way that’s helpful. And we have a responsibility that’s broader than just us.

We have a tremendous responsibility, and how do we help women in those businesses to talk to one another and to be helpful to one another and to showcase those things that they think were- and acknowledged that there are things that they’ve tried, that didn’t work and that acknowledged both sides of it, and also be extremely supportive to be a group that could be truth keepers to others. So I think there’s a lot of work to be done on that side.

R: Fredda Brown. Thank you so much for joining us on the conversation for women and family business.

F: Thank you. It’s been great.