KPMG Private Enterprise has famously published numerous studies and
thought leadership articles on women in family businesses from across the globe, but none of these publications has looked exclusively at the role of women in Saudi Arabia. Until now! With the number of women in the Kingdom’s workforce increasing over the last decade, and women assuming leadership roles in Saudi companies, many of which are family businesses, their contribution and influence deserved a closer examination.
In this episode of WiFB, Kholoud Mousa, Partner & Head of Inclusion, Diversity and Equity, and Buthainah Albaity, Director Private Enterprise – Family Business & Family Offices, share insights and findings from KPMG’s recent publication, The Power of Women in Family Businesses. The study was local to Saudi Arabia, featuring in-depth interviews with 14 female family business leaders from across the Kingdom and focuses on the changing role of women in these enterprises.
- The traditional role of women in family business: Women have always had a role in the family enterprise, but not necessarily a formal one. They have a good sense of how the business works because of their proximity to it, but are often limited to certain roles such as HR or CSR activities because these are the areas their male counterparts think they’re interested in.
- How this is changing: Updated regulations that lean towards equality in the workplace, along with the COVID-19 pandemic, which forced businesses to innovate and adapt, catalysed change in many ways. As a result, formerly male-dominated industries are newly open to women, and the private sector is now hiring women at twice the rate of the public sector.
- Mentorship and sponsorship in family enterprises: There’s a stark difference between getting a seat at the table and actually being heard. Many respondents cited the importance of having a mentor who is comfortable giving constructive feedback to female family members and a sponsor who can actively help amplify their voices and advance their careers.
- Looking to the future: Gender diversity on boards must be the focus going forward. Currently, Saudi Arabian boards are less than one per cent female, particularly in listed companies.
Ramia: Welcome, everyone, to another episode of Women in Family Business. I am delighted today to be joined by Kholoud Mousa and Buthainah Albaity from KPMG, Saudi Arabia. Welcome, ladies.
Kholoud: Thank you, Ramia.
Buthainah: Thank you.
Ramia: It’s lovely to have you here because you’re going to be sharing some very interesting insights from a report that you have recently published entitled The Power of Women in Family Businesses. Why did you feel that this was the right time to gain these kinds of insights and to have these kinds of conversations with the women that you interviewed, with the female leaders in family business that you interviewed in Saudi Arabia. Kholoud, maybe you can tell us a little bit more about what was your primary motivation to do the report now.
Kholoud: Actually, when we started this study, we were inspired by an article issued by KPMG Global Private Enterprise called also The Power of Women in Family Business. That was in 2020 and it was for women in globe in general. No involvement were from women in Arab worlds or in the Middle East. At the same time, we have issued the first edition in the Female CEO Outlook Report, which was a local report where during the survey we interact with many amazing family leaders and female leaders in KSA. We thought it was very important to acknowledge the increasing number of women in the workforce. That was really a most significant change in Saudi Arabia economy maybe in the last 5 to 10 years. Not only that. They’re assuming leadership roles in different industries, including the family business.
What we found, Ramia, is that there’s some studies that examined the changes in the business role of women over time, but very few were specific on the family business role of women. We all know that traditionally women, somehow they play an invisible role in their family businesses. They work behind the scene, in administrative duties sometimes, or as informal advisors and moderators. So we decided to conduct this local study in Saudi Arabia and we did more in-depth interviews with 14 family business female leaders across KSA.
Ramia: How do you feel women’s roles in the family enterprise are perceived right now? What is their role and do you feel that this is now actually being challenged through what you found out in the report?
Buthainah: In terms of roles, it’s interesting what we found out even during the interviews. It seems that women have always had some kind of role around the family enterprise. Now, not in a formal manner but there would be a role in some way or form. For example, we were speaking to one of the ladies who was telling us that what her mother used to do was actually take money from her friends. She had a lot of female friends who didn’t know where to put their money. She would say, “Okay. Give me your money and I’ll get my husband to actually put it in some investments or real estate.” She was acting as a broker although she’s not formally a broker. Women were and still are raising the next-gen let’s say, and the kind of values and the education and so on, so forth are still with the women. So it’s not that they haven’t had… Maybe from cultural perspectives, there are certain categories where some people like to say women belong in the kitchen or wherever, but they always had some role or it happens I’m sure in every family where the father would go back home, start talking to his wife, “This happened. That happened. What do you think?” So although from a cultural perspective, there are certain stereotypes of the kind of roles women take and even in some of the family businesses, we see that they would even limit ladies to certain roles within the business such as HR or CSR activities and philanthropy because they feel this is where they’re interested or where they fit. So even if they don’t have a formal role within a family business, they would be present in some form whether at home or within the business or the other family activities.
Ramia: But now you have an emerging generation of female leaders in Saudi Arabia as well. These institutional setups are changing and access for women to both positions of leadership, but also to wealth have changed and shifted. Is that just an impression or do you really feel like that change is real and do you see that being a sustained change and how do you feel that’s going to impact family enterprises and family wealth in the years to come?
Buthainah: We’re very lucky actually to be living in these times where we see a lot of change. Honestly speaking, the most recent pandemic also has caused a lot of businesses to be innovative in terms of accepting change, looking for ways where they can be effective and efficient. As simple as using technology and video conferences. I remember at some point in time, clients would not accept having a meeting virtually but now it’s totally okay. So there is this openness in terms of how can we become better, how can we become more agile in case something like that happens?
In addition to that, the regulations as well locally have been changing tremendously. There’s a lot of push also for local human resources, whether men or women, to take more roles. So it’s interesting times that we’re living in. When you hear the stories from the ladies that we met, especially those from the previous generation, a lot of them actually made it to the family business only when they proved themselves outside. When they saw their daughters performing very well in another organization, they were like, “You know what? You can do a great job in your own family business. Can you just come back?” Now we can see that if they’re going to put a family constitution in place of who’s going to succeed, it has nothing to do with gender whether male or female. In some families, they would say you have to spend quite a number of years somewhere else and come back or they would have a plan for them. What was very interesting is that in one of the family constitutions, the next chairman is actually written that it’s going to be a lady.
There is a lot of change and there is a lot of openness in accepting that change. Ladies, to be honest, are doing a great job and those that we met were really impressive. The interesting thing is even those that are coming from traditional families, although they know that they have, let’s say the expertise to make it all the way to the board, for example, but they know that they have to work out in the family politics and the organizational politics to be able to make it to the board, let’s say in peace, because one of their concerns is not just to make it to the board, but also to make sure that they keep the family ties. Especially when we talk about the ladies that we met and a lot of those that are doing a great job out there are coming from, let’s say the third generation or the fourth generation where she’s not just thinking about her dad or her brothers. She’s also talking about her cousins, her uncles, the grandfather in some cases if he’s still alive. That kind of maturity was actually a great insight that we got out of those interviews.
Kholoud: Probably everyone now knows that over the last few years, a number of sectors also and industries that were formerly dominated by men are now open for women and it’s provided them with a lot of job opportunities. Today Saudi women are employed in all public sectors from military to passport control to the traffic department. If you visit Saudi, you will find this when you arrive to the airport. On the other side, also in the private sector, it’s now hiring women twice the rate of the public sector. So you can see women everywhere. This is on the employment. Actually, this is leading to impressive results and the business case now is obvious people are buying into the idea not because it’s something nice to do, but because it really has a business imperative and it impacts the performance of the companies, it impacts the performance of the teams working together. This is a very hot topic and a business imperative.
Ramia: What are the challenges though that they face? What are the typical things that they see that are really difficult for them to overcome and to be able to fully, I would say, assume the roles that they would like to assume within the family enterprise?
Kholoud: There’s different challenges we found when we sat with those participants. I think the most important one was getting the opportunity, not working. So how do the women read to the opportunity. This takes us to another aspect which is how to have a mentor or a sponsor. We all know that there’s a value and importance of having a mentor for any person, regardless if it’s a woman or man, especially if they aspire to have a leadership position and to make an impact on their family and their society. Mentorship simply is about a more experienced individual advising an ambitious younger one. So all the interviewees agreed that they need someone just to listen actively to them, someone to frankly help them whether they wanted to discuss a business strategy, a career path, or even office politics because they’re not very engaged day-to-day with the business. They told us they wish they have an honest feedback from a mentor.
The challenge was to find a mentor, either woman or a man, who would be comfortable to give constructive feedback to a female family member.
More importantly actually than finding a mentor is they also need a sponsor. Unlike a mentor, the sponsor is someone who can not only advise you on your career but to actively help you advance your career. It’s a person who has an influence in the company, an influence in the sector. Could be a father, an uncle, brother, but they have power in the family business and they can use their social impact as we call it, the social impact, and their credibility to advocate for this female. In other words, he’s the person who can recommend your name in a high-profile project. He can introduce you to people in his network. He can find a way, an open door for opportunity that supports your climb up the ladder. This is really what the females were lacking, this kind of sponsor.
But Ramia, the most successful female CEOs that we have interviewed, many of them said that they have one thing in common. They were really given the opportunities to shine because they had this sponsor-father relationship in the family business. Their fathers or brothers or uncles believed in them, they sponsored them, they gave them the opportunity, and then they succeeded.
Ramia: What are typically the challenges that they need the mentors for or the champions for? Do women maybe bring different types of insecurities to these roles, do you feel, from the interviews? Were you surprised by some of the issues that these women faced or maybe the doubts they had in themselves?
Buthainah: What’s so interesting about this study was the fact that we have gone through a lot of those challenges that the ladies were talking about. So then maybe there’s also the challenge of the family dynamics also and making sure to be much more politically correct. Maybe circling back to the traditional roles, there was also a lot of challenge when it comes to ladies from family businesses in terms of do you actually need to go out and work? “Why do you need that? There’s a lot of people who are doing it for you.” So I’ve seen it, whether with some of the ladies that were my colleagues who actually came from business families and also the ladies that we have interviewed that they had to prove that they were actually being serious about taking up a job and becoming a professional. So it was not just to pass time and they were actually quite serious. So finding a mentor who would take you seriously in terms of your career aspirations was one of those challenges.
The other thing was the fact that let’s say networking, from a networking perspective, we see that and I’ve seen that even during my time as a professional woman that a lot of men get a lot of business discussions going on in social gatherings. Until now, a lot of the traditional or let’s say the social gatherings are still very traditional and segregated. So some of those discussions are missed out from a lady’s perspective. But one of the things that we were told by one of the interviewees was the fact that even when ladies themselves meet together and they’re all from business families or from the professional world, they don’t talk about business. So it opened the perspective of how women take on social gatherings versus men.
Ramia: So why do you think that is? Do you think it’s our fear of how we are being perceived by other women or is it just we’re not used to it or we think it’s not interesting to other women to talk about our work?
Buthainah: To be honest, we didn’t really dig into that question very deeply within this exercise but it’s going to be a good topic to actually talk about in the future.
So it could be people not having the confidence or they don’t understand the value they have or it’s just that separation. Social gatherings, we talk about social things. Business gatherings are more for professional topics and other business topics. I remember in one of the discussions, it was also off-topic. Kholoud was actually convincing one of the ladies and telling her how great she is and she can take that and take it to other forums and other platforms and share that experience because she had a great story. Maybe in our future studies, Kholoud, we can take on that topic and see what are the reasons, and probably there are other reasons that we cannot think of now and other people can help us with.
Kholoud: I think it’s a cultural thing and because our environment and culture is very conservative, so women, they don’t want to appear to other peers that we are discussing business in a family gathering because they were perceived that they’re maybe not engaging with the family. Especially it’s that the generation are changing now. So the generation that we have discussed with them this issue were usually the second generation. When we ask them what about the next generation, the third generation, they say they are more confident and encouraged to talk about business. So probably we will see more empowerment of this generation in the next generation, not at this level. These are my personal thoughts.
Ramia: What I loved about your report, there was one conclusion that you brought out, because of course, a lot of the access that we get as women to these opportunities now and a lot of that change has been about proving worldwide, and also in the Middle East, has been about proving that women can do the job just like men can. It’s true that now that we’ve had women in leadership for a fair amount of time, your report actually very clearly states that attributes of leaders are those of leaders regardless of the gender. So can you tell us a little bit more about how you found that out and what led you to that conclusion in the research?
Kholoud: Yes. There’s a perception that a woman or what they call a CEO, which is the chief emotional officer, and that their skills and ability is more emotional. When we asked our participants about this, I would say all of them disagree. Some of them said that “My brothers are more emotional than me and they usually ask me to take tough decisions, especially if it relates to HR matters, firing, or hiring people.” So they call her and tell her, “Please, we need to fire this person and you are the one that could do that.” So that’s not true and they believe that every man, woman, or human being has their own skills and abilities and I think they complement each other. It’s not bad to have an emotional behavior. It’s not bad. It’s not good to be a woman with male behaviors. All research now is focusing on how to be an authentic leader and use your own skills to put and to add to the table. So this conclusion was from all the participants and practically from what we have seen the roles that they’re playing in their families. Fortunately now, the families we’re seeing that they are focusing more about the skills, the engagement, the capabilities of the family member to choose them to lead the business, not on their gender.
Buthainah: If you look at the business environment in general, there is a lot of, let’s say, reinforcement of the soft skills. I think if we take it out of the context of family business, we see a lot of articles about the importance of empathy for a leader, emotional intelligence, and how these qualities are important because now even the way we do our work is different. Maybe whatever people were talking about at some point in time during, let’s say the earlier revolutions and things like that where there was division of labor, things were very mechanical. They were working with a lot of machines. Now your most important asset is people. So whether it’s a male leader or a female leader, they still have to have similar qualities because they will be dealing with people more than what it used to be in much older environments.
Ramia: From your end, were your hypotheses before you started the research fairly confirmed by what you found out?
Buthainah: Yes. There were lots of those. First of all, we were really happy about all those ladies that we got in touch with. They all accepted to actually be part of this study from the first instance. So there is this feeling of wanting to share and wanting to participate and that was really great. Then there were lots of really surprising stories. In one of them we were told that the family business started hiring women a long time ago on factory floors when a lot of businesses did not really hear of that. If we look at the mainstream media, you may think that because of the recent regulations and regulatory changes and the changing environment, and a lot of those topics, they started hiring women in factories. But one of them was saying, “My grandfather started that back in the ’90s in our factory floors in one of the sectors that are very much masculine.”
There was also another story when we were talking about succession and gender roles and differences. We were like, “How did it happen in your family?” She was like, “That was unheard of in my family. I’ve been with the family business from the early days and with my father, it was that if you can get the job done, then run with it. It’s you and your brother.” We’re also now in the process of also getting other family business-related studies done and you can actually see that in some cases people are not just talking about meritocracy. It’s also who’s the closest to the founder who actually takes on the next chairmanship or leadership in the business.
What was interesting is that because we covered the three main regions in the country, there were a bit of differences in how… We went with some let’s say stereotypical thoughts that we had, but then we were surprised by… When we thought that a family was very traditional, they were much more progressive than we actually thought because a lot of what’s happening in the private sector does not really make it to the media and we don’t really hear of those. That was one of the reasons why we thought that this study is better done on a qualitative basis. There are a lot of stories that you can hear and you can see that… There are lots of light bulbs that were actually coming with a lot of those answers. So business families in Saudi, each one has a very interesting story. Whenever we had an interview, we wanted to spend much more time to hear about what’s going on.
Another interesting insight was how a lot of the ladies wanted to keep that legacy of the family. In some other study, I remember it wasn’t really gender-based, but you would hear a lot of men saying, “We want to take this business public. We want to corporatize it, and it’s up to the next-gen if they want to keep the shares or not. It’s a good exit strategy.” But when we spoke to a lot of the ladies, there was a lot of that family legacy going on. I’m not saying that the gentlemen were not talking about this, but I haven’t heard a single lady actually talking about how this thing has to be corporatized and dilute and those great stories.
Kholoud: I think we still have seen that traditional family firms and this is not only in the East in general, but sometimes in the West too, they still follow the implicit rule of the primogenita succession. So to transfer the business from the father to the firstborn child. But often in Saudi Arabia, it’s the firstborn son. We’ve seen and some share with us that the son is often involved in activity related to the business. He’s introduced to the network, invited to business dinners but they don’t see this happening still with daughters. For generations, this is the norm and many participants said it’s not easy openly to discuss the succession not because anything. It’s just because the expectation is set for the eldest son even if he’s not very qualified.
But I have to say that as of today, what we found also is that this has been slightly changed and many family businesses are now opening leadership positions for women. We’ve seen this in some families. Both the men or women, especially the family members are entering the business with equal claim of succession. Also what we have seen is that there’s more interest in programs for developing the next generation to give them more chances to learn, to engage, to develop regardless of their gender. Which is a very positive thing that is happening now.
Ramia: So hopefully, lasting changes. That brings me to my last question for you, ladies. This particular project where you’re really looking at what you lovingly entitled The Power of Women in Family Business in Saudi Arabia, if this project gets picked up again in a few years, what are the changes that you are hoping for? What is the progress that you’re hoping will have been made? What would you be looking forward to examining in the future and what kind of changes do you expect?
Kholoud: For me, I was very optimistic with all the reforms that are happening in Saudi Arabia and all these positive changes. But I wish that we reached a point where we don’t need to discuss gender diversity anymore.
Buthainah: I cannot agree more, Kholoud. Honestly speaking, seeing the change that we have gone through over the past 10 years, it’s very mind-boggling. If you tell me, “What would you expect in the next 10 years?” I would say, “Okay. I don’t want to talk about quotas and that should be something out of the way.” But at the same time I would be surprised of what’s going to come next in the next 10 years. We’re quite optimistic. Honestly speaking, I remember there were days when I was the only woman in a meeting of let’s say 25 people and now going to meetings where we can be up to 50% filling those rooms. The topic of boards is a very hot topic, but with the pace that we’re going through, I can imagine that these can be overcome at least from a regulatory perspective very soon. We will wait and see what other surprises are coming next with all those ladies that are doing a great job, to be honest.
Ramia: Looking forward to seeing the results of future research, ladies, and thank you so much for sharing your insights of this wonderful research and good luck to you for the next research and hopefully you come to share it with us again. Thank you very much for joining us on the podcast.
Buthainah: Thank you very much, Ramia.
Kholoud: Thank you so much.