gender inequality in business
Image courtesy of Shutterstock

Women Leaders in Family Enterprises (WLife) recently released the results of its 2023 research survey, which focused on identifying the biases faced by female family business leaders due to their gender. The survey also examines the repercussions of bias and discrimination within the family business setting, and how they affect perceptions regarding women’s competency, professional performance, and career progression.

Produced in collaboration with Business Consulting Resources, University of San Francisco/Gellert Family Business Center, and Loyola Marymount University Family Business Entrepreneurship Program, the 2023 WLife survey targeted women participants actively involved in their family’s business, either operationally or as a stakeholder. Of the 141 responses received, 101 were used to generate the results.

Gender Bias In The Workplace

Gender bias in the workplace poses a threat to both family businesses and the individual family members affected by it. Bias-influenced succession decisions can put business performance, as well as the continuity that family firms strive for, in jeopardy. It can also create a discouraging environment for women and erode key relational dynamics within the family.

Around 49% of survey respondents reported experiencing some form of gender bias within their family business. This was mainly associated with the so-called ‘glass ceiling effect’ and ‘sticky floor impact’, or limited leadership opportunities. However, these findings are consistent with non-family-owned businesses, where a similar ratio of women report facing gender-based discrimination. Moreover, 40% of survey participants who encountered bias in their family business also felt that their gender negatively impacted their ability to advance professionally, giving them the impression that they needed to work harder than their male counterparts.

Many survey participants highlighted specific instances of gender bias in their family enterprises that led to personal frustration and professional dissatisfaction. These included requiring approval from a male colleague to initiate a project, or feeling like they needed to work harder than their brothers to achieve equal recognition and opportunities. The findings also showed that those who remain in a work environment in which they experience gender biases are more likely to develop imposter syndrome, which could potentially exacerbate challenges in the workplace and further deteriorate their professional performance. In some cases, respondents even chose to leave their family firms due to the discrimination they encountered.

men and women in business
Image courtesy of Shutterstock

Bias From Family Members

Around 35% of survey respondents identified family members on their management teams as a source of gender bias. Nearly the same percentage reported that they have experienced gender bias from family members serving on the corporate or advisory board. This highlights the concerning prevalence of gender-based discrimination from individuals closely associated with the survey participants. In addition, some respondents shared their dismay that their organisation’s visible efforts to promote women’s achievements and value, occurring publicly at events and in the media, did not seem to translate within their family business environment.


External Business Sources

According to 51% of respondents, customers are the primary source of gender bias in their family business workplace. The general business community and vendors follow as the next biggest sources, at 45% and 37% respectively. The survey points to the expectations imposed by traditional gender roles as a leading cause for the different treatment women receive from customers, vendors, and other members of the community compared with men. Responses also indicated that the level of gender bias encountered often correlates with the sector in which a family firm operates, with certain industries considered traditionally male-centric.

Gender bias in the workplace
Image courtesy of Shutterstock

Overcoming Bias By Challenging Traditional Roles And Expectations

Recognising and challenging traditional gender roles is essential for family firms to create more inclusive workplaces and family dynamics. Data gathered by WLife confirms that families can create positive outcomes for their business by identifying and confronting traditional gender roles, including those specific to their sector. These outcomes include increased innovation, enhanced morale, competitive advantages in the marketplace, an inclusive company culture, and more harmonious personal and professional relationships.

WLife’s survey highlights approaches that can address gender bias and discriminatory practices in family business environments:

  • Create awareness by educating team members on gender bias.
  • Evaluate and standardise remuneration.
  • Review and ensure gender neutrality in the recruiting process.
  • Confront instances of gender bias in the workplace when they occur.
  • Offer flexible work options that consider the additional responsibilities many women have in their home life.
  • Offer shared parental leave rather than only maternity leave.
  • Establish mentoring programs.

The WLife research survey reinforces the need to address bias and discriminatory practices in family-owned enterprises to ensure their long-term success and sustainability. By embracing gender diversity, and the unique perspectives and talents it brings, family firms have an opportunity to unlock their full potential, drive innovation, streamline governance practices and create a stronger sense of unity, both in their family and their business. As global strides continue to be taken to advance gender diversity, WLife’s survey illustrates the importance for family enterprises to not only simultaneously evolve but also potentially take the lead in promoting inclusivity in the business community and serve as an inspiration to others.