A dedicated research project on the challenges, hopes and dreams of women in family business leadership positions

Through their Hawai’i-based consulting firm, Business Consulting Resources (BCR), Jean Santos and Ken Gilbert have more than three decades of experience providing critical support for family businesses across a wide range of industries.

Over the last three years, Jean and Ken conducted a special research project to document the complex nature of family-owned businesses. The first year of the initiative focussed on the founding generation and the issues that impact their ability to navigate succession. The following year, they examined the successors’ perspective: how does the second generation build on what is handed to them? 

This year, Jean, Ken and Celine Casamina conducted hundreds of hours of interviews with women in leadership positions to better understand the specific challenges they overcome on their journey to family business success. 

The testimony they heard includes stories of women expertly juggling roles as mothers, sisters, partners, CEOs and managers of their family businesses. Unlike those with non-family employers, women in the family business do not have the luxury of leaving their work when the day is over. Regardless of their familial obligations, their work is often a 24/7 proposition.

For many, the journey to family business success is defined by struggle against harmful stereotyping, the compulsion to overachieve, impostor phenomenon and, often, time itself. Sharing their stories creates the awareness needed to help mitigate these obstacles for others on the path.

Recently, we sat down with Jean, Ken and Celine to discuss the myth of having it all, why we assume family businesses are better equipped to deal with gender bias and how women can empower themselves on their way to positions of leadership in the family business.

How did your preconceptions change as you conducted these interviews?

Jean: At the outset, I assumed that these women’s stories would be fairly straightforward – that their journeys were relatively easy. I imagined we’d speak with women who earned their credentials, honed their skills, achieved their goals and had everything work out. 

Instead, we found struggle. Often, we were nearly brought to tears hearing these women talk about the egregious bias they had to overcome even within their own families, nevermind their communities and the wider world.

Celine: That said, we weren’t totally naïve going into this. We all know that women are not promoted to leadership positions as often as men; pay equity is far from a reality. 

However, we believed that within family businesses, conditions were better. We found that the opposite is true – discrimination is prevalent despite family relationships.

Why do we expect that family businesses will uphold a higher standard were equality is concerned?

Jean: I believed that familial love was always more powerful than corporate relationships or business structures, but that is not always the case. We assume that these family bonds will create an unbreakable foundation that will override gender bias, but unfortunately, they often do not.

Celine: In my family, we prioritise our relationships, and I feel supported when I think about them. I shared Jean’s hope that in all family businesses, decisions are made from a perspective of uplifting each other. Sadly, when it comes to business operations, it does not always play out like that.

What other commonalities did you identify in your research?

Jean: Many of the women we talked to spent a considerable amount of time working outside the family business. Some of them started in the family business and then left, in large part because they felt they needed to do that to gain credibility and achieve their goals. Sometimes, they came back again.

Overall, I believe family businesses are a good place for women. In addition to the common struggles, we did see several stories of success as well; the flexibility of the work is one differentiating factor.

In the focus group we held, many women expressed their appreciation at not having to miss out on their children’s games or recitals. However, the other side of the coin is that too often, when they are at their child’s soccer game, they are working on their computer or phone because they are so committed to the family business. 

Another commonality we identified is that women in family businesses are often compelled to overachieve. They feel like they need to stand out.

Where does this compulsion come from?

Jean: Many of these women grew up hearing that they should focus on getting married instead of working towards a leadership position in the family business. Often, only their brothers were groomed to take on the responsibility of leadership regardless of their qualifications.

Celine: These women were brought up differently than their brothers or male cousins. Commonly, when they do make it to a position where they can potentially take on a leadership role, they begin to question themselves. They feel like impostors.

Unfortunately, the drive to overachieve stems from competition among women. The reality is that when there are only a handful of leadership positions available to women, the competition is automatically another woman. When it seems like there isn’t enough room to rise up together, women start taking each other down to get to that spot, which is highly problematic.

What are some ways we can improve the conditions for women in family business leadership roles?

Jean: Firstly, we must do away with the misconception that women only find themselves in positions of leadership because they are the wife, daughter, sister or cousin of an influential man. Many of our interviewees heard this theory regurgitated time and again by their vendors, customers, bankers and other associates.

Women must also find ways to combat the impostor phenomenon, which fuels an unhealthy need for approval. Too many women feel the need to push themselves unnecessarily because they wish to measure up in the eyes of the old boys’ club. Sometimes, they push themselves to a breaking point.

Celine: When we ask women what challenges they face, time is a recurring answer. Because of their obligations outside the business, time management is a constant struggle. 

So many of these women feel like they have to be the leaders with raising their families as well. Combine this with the compulsion to overachieve, and many of them feel that there is just not enough time. It comes to a point where time itself is an obstacle, and they feel like they can’t possibly juggle their obligations.

Jean: When we had our focus group, we made it a point to talk about the word ‘balance’. The women agreed there is no balance. Instead, it is a Jenga game, and they are continuously wrestling with which piece to pull and when. The notion that women can have it all is incorrect – they would say it’s impossible – they have to make choices, and it becomes a question of priorities.

How should men approach this subject?

Ken: Men have to realise that it is not about gender; it is about the most competent person taking specific jobs to accomplish the goals of the family business. We have to ask ourselves: is our ultimate goal gender-driven or is it about generating value and building legacy?

Out of 100 men, 99 would say that gender has nothing to do with it, but they don’t necessarily live their beliefs. They too are mired in conventionality and a traditionalist cultural upbringing that is getting in everyone’s way.

I can easily see my daughter taking a prominent leadership role someday. Sadly, I can also see men getting in her way. Nobody intends to let that happen, but I fear the struggle is inevitable. It would be shameful if her potential were not fully realised – not from her own doing but rather because of the world she is moving into.

Jean: As a society, we propagate stereotypes in the way we raise our children. Boys are often taught to be aggressive and to fight for things. Girls are often taught to be subservient homebuilders. There is no inherent maleness or femaleness, however – these are learned behaviours. We must stop teaching them.

In our practice, we hear a lot about men doing things that get in the way of a woman’s progress and, quite often, they are not even aware they are doing it. We’ve all been to meetings where a woman says something brilliant and nobody pays attention. Then, maybe five minutes later, the same thing comes out of a man’s mouth, and everybody reacts like it’s revelatory.

We need to be cognisant of this unintentional bias. Only then can we work to stop it. Ultimately, the goal is to create awareness to the point where we think and act in our family businesses and our culture in a gender-blind way.

Do we need to change the terminology to reflect this awareness?

Jean: It’s not necessarily the terminology but rather how those words are prioritised. For example, my mom and dad ran our family business together. However, my dad was President, CEO and then father, whereas my mom was the wife, mother and then VP. Her title in the company always came last. 

It comes down to restructuring how we see these women to acknowledge that they are more dynamic than just the mother, wife or sister. Changing perspective is more important than changing titles. 

Women must define success and achievement on their terms, not the terms of others. You can say no and still be successful. You can leave work early and still be a successful CEO. You can stay at work longer and still be a good mother. Empowerment is about allowing women to speak for themselves.