The role of women in family businesses

Manuel Bermejo. Professor. IE Business School

12 May 2011

The number of women entrepreneurs is growing, and it is particularly noticeable in family business sector, where more and more women are taking over the reins of the family firm.

If I analyse the current situation with regard to women in family-owned businesses, and make a forecast for the future, I see that more and more mothers and, in general, more and more women are, and will be, the founders of family businesses or those who lead them into the future.

This phenomenon of female entrepreneurialism is such that it has now been given the name of "mumpreneur", a term coined in France to define young mothers who are starting up their own businesses. A profile of entrepreneurs that includes women of between 25 and 40 years, mothers, with higher education qualifications and most with previous experience in middle management positions. Interestingly, France is the neighbouring country of Spain with the highest birth rate (800,000 a year) and with the highest employment rate among mothers on the continent: 80%. There are 7 million examples of this new type of female entrepreneur/mother in the United States.

New technologies are, of course, playing a key role in this female entrepreneurialism boom, but there is also a highly positive change of approach: a positive feminism, if I am allowed to use the expression. The aim is to use values such as personal dignity, individual and financial freedom or work/life balance. In short, steps forward in the construction of a society that is more respectful, balanced and fair. With no unjustifiable discrimination on the one hand or abuses of position on the other.

We are also progressing in Spain. For example, last Monday, we opened a new edition of our Family Business Management Programme at IE Business School and the huge majority of participants are women who aim to continue the family business.

I am pleased when I observe this phenomenon because it means that the education given at home and the training that is acquired no longer discriminate between men and women.

I know more and more innate female entrepreneurs who have created and built up their businesses with great merit, since the difficulties inherent to the process also include those that arise from a society still tinged by male chauvinism to a lesser or greater extent. And, of course, there are more and more family business entrepreneurs who choose women as their successors because they are better qualified for piloting the family business in the future. I like the fact that these circumstances arise naturally because it changes mentalities, and not necessarily through the imposition of quotas. Indeed, I prefer this method to that of families that still hand over the control of the business to the oldest male even if he is a complete idiot.

An analysis of the past reveals a very different situation, especially in Latin countries. In general, the man/father has taken care of the business and the woman/mother has taken care of the family. In those circumstances, many mothers have played the praiseworthy role of becoming what we might call today the family council. Mothers have tempered arguments between brothers and sisters to stop them from going further; they have directed relations that are not always easy between father and children; they have supported their husbands at the difficult times faced by every entrepreneur at one time or another. Their role has been fundamental. So fundamental that my suggestion is that when this occurs, the roles should be maintained but made more formal. If I had to raise any objection, it would be that, on many occasions, I have seen overprotective attitudes in mothers with regard to the children that have prevented better decisions being made in the business. I should point out that this is more characteristic of Latin families.

Undoubtedly, the woman´s role in family business now and in the future will be much greater and not only in issues related to family management, but also in executive and governance positions. Family businesses that award priority to equal opportunities or meritocracy will have advanced greatly in this increasingly sophisticated, complex and global environment. An environment that demands participatory leadership with all the skills a project needs to be successful. It is a time for talent and talent does not distinguish gender.

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