For all the studies of commerce and economics that academics have undertaken over the years, family businesses have only in recent decades become a focus of scholarship, and very limited research was dedicated to examining women’s roles and the unique challenges they face in this specific context.
Dr Manuela Weller, professor of Management of Small and Medium-Sized Companies and Entrepreneurship at the Technische Hochschule Mittelhessen University of Applied Sciences in Germany, devoted her doctoral thesis to studying women who married into family businesses. In her research, she found that these women carry the burden of dual responsibilities, competing for their time and energy. They are typically expected to be full-time business partners, helping out either in the office or on the production floor, as well as full-time caregivers, responsible for looking after the household and raising children. Dr Weller sought to understand how women cope with their dual role and investigated the culture shock associated with marrying into a family business.
We sat down with Dr Weller to discuss what led her to this particular field of study, why these questions have been largely ignored by the academic community and what overarching trends she discovered through her academic research.
Interview with family business researcher Dr Manuela Weller
Why did you choose to focus your dissertation on the subject of women in family businesses?
I grew up in an entrepreneurial family as the daughter of a woman who married into an existing family business. I saw first-hand the complex situation that creates. As a member of an entrepreneurial family, I felt this topic was under-researched and that there was so much to uncover about it.
In 1995, while in a bookstore in New York City, I found a book specifically about family businesses. This was unusual for me because the term “family business” does not exist in German. Five years later, I started an MBA in International Management, and I decided to focus my master’s thesis on the succession of daughters.
In 2005, I began my PhD program at the University of Innsbruck. Early on, I performed a literature review of studies examining women in family businesses. In the process, I met a group of women that piqued my interest because they were in a similar situation to that of my mother. I knew I had to research this topic if only to find out why women in family businesses received so little attention in the field of academic research.
What did you hope to discover about women who married into family businesses when you began your research?
My primary motivation was to make these women visible. Most of the time, they find themselves caught between two worlds – family and business. Many are not even accepted as a legitimate part of the business.
My research was a way to give them a voice and share their experiences with others who are faced with the same issues and feelings. While these women’s stories were similar in terms of their situation, they were all unique and fascinating.
What criteria did you use to select the women who would be part of the study?
I chose women who married into an existing family business in the craft sector because the craft industry is one of the classic representatives of small and medium enterprises in Germany; they are the backbone of the German economy. This sector also has a well-established cultural tradition regarding women who marry into it.
However, the role of wives in the craft sector has been vastly under-represented in business research. I felt it was important to explore their world in great detail. I studied eight cases and developed 11 topic clusters such as socialisation, background and motivation.
What trends did you find as you developed these clusters?
One of the common challenges for these women was separating home and business responsibilities. Motherhood management was very important for them, and this often conflicted with their expectations as a business partner.
For women who marry into a family business, the fundamental question is: ‘Whose company is it?’ Do they themselves have any equity in the business? There are clear differences between women who have grown up in an entrepreneurial family and those who have not.
When I analysed women who had grown up in an entrepreneurial household, I noticed that they had fewer problems establishing themselves in the business because of their previous experiences.
Whereas women who did not come from an entrepreneurial family struggled with the adjustment to a work-oriented lifestyle and the reality of very little leisure time. What is interesting is that, after the period of adjustment, they fully embraced the new lifestyle and often looked back at their old life as unfulfilling.
Did you find a difference between women who were raising the next generation of family business leaders and those who did not have children?
The women who did not have children seemed less troubled balancing work and life for obvious reasons. They operated with their spouses in a partnership that seemed to work fairly well.
For those who had children, their experience mainly depended on the age of the children. Those with children aged five years and under actually found it easier than those who had school-aged children.
Still, the overwhelming majority of childcare responsibilities fell on the women, so they had to juggle multiple responsibilities. Often, this meant working late into the evening on business tasks after the children were in bed.
Did the women in your study find it difficult to work with family members?
Many said there were stressful moments working with family. For example, when working for another company, an employee can leave the office without a problem at 5 o’clock. In a family business, there is not always a hard-stop at 5 o’clock.
Also, in a family business, if a woman is mad at her boss, that boss is often her spouse, so the anger comes back home more than it would otherwise.
Why do you think there is a lack of academic study into the impact of women in family businesses?
I believe it goes hand-in-hand with the sector. The craft industry is mainly male-dominated, so we still have gender substructures ruling the sector. Women’s job responsibilities are often relegated to the back office, while men are primarily responsible for production. This only exacerbates the invisibility of women in the family business construct.
In some of the cases I studied, the wife was solely responsible for the bookkeeping and financials of the business. But when it came time for the annual meeting with the bank, she had to brief her husband on her work because bankers usually meet only with the men. That is a gender structure emblematic of the deep-seated patriarchy permeating society as a whole.
Do you believe we are entering an age of disruption for gender attitudes and beliefs in the craft industry?
I believe so. Some of the women I interviewed were as young as 27, so I was astonished that they accepted the divide between business responsibilities and visibility. Younger women tend to be better educated, and some have already had success in other companies. When they enter these family businesses in the craft sector, they are confident that they can stand on their own and have an impact. Having said that, it will take time for the old attitudes to dissipate entirely.
Younger women who are looking for a career will only accept a role in a family business if they get to be an active partner, have a voice in decision-making and become an equal partner. If not, they will move on.
What’s next on your research agenda?
I completed my dissertation in 2009, so this year is my 10th anniversary, and I plan to interview some of my former case study subjects. There are still many unanswered questions in this area, and I hope to uncover more facets of this truly fascinating topic.
However, I do not want to focus exclusively on gender roles and expectations between men and women in the family business. I want to explore areas such as teamwork, innovation, disruption and diversity. We are living in a disruptive world, so we should reconsider the landscape through the lens of disruption.