It's A Man's World

Gender bias pervades small family businesses

By Timothy G. Habbershon

Are family businesses fair to both men and women? I seldom hear the subject discussed. The unspoken sentiment seems to be that beliefs about the roles of sons and daughters, or a father's views about women, are considered family issues, and private ones at that. Compared with succession planning or competitiveness, the question of gender doesn't seem all that pressing to family leaders. But having recently completed a pilot study on gender in small family-owned companies, it's obvious to me that the topic needs to get more airtime.

Why? First, we found that family businesses do treat men and women differently, often to the disadvantage of women. In the companies we studied, gender bias affected how leaders thought about the role of female employees. It influenced their thinking about customers, marketing, and sales strategy. Gender issues created tension in both the family and the business, prevented women from getting proper leadership development, and limited the candidate pool.

Nowhere are the effects of gender bias more pernicious than in succession strategies. When we spoke with younger generations in family businesses, we found that while men assumed they would inherit the business, women didn't know what their roles might be. Those attitudes are formed early: The sons, but not the daughters, said they worked in the company with Dad as kids and did summer internships there.

It's all too easy for men who have inherited a business from their father to assume that their own son should be next in line.The common practice of giving the business to the sons and a generous inheritance to the daughters sounds fine in the lawyer's office. But a growing business has the potential to provide income and employment for generations, while even a large inheritance, split between children, doesn't have as much upside. We saw how giving money to daughters, rather than inviting them into the business, disinherited daughters and their children and created long-term discord. One brother said he knew his sister was hurt by this practice "even today," but was planning to pass the business on to his own sons.

These attitudes restrict leadership opportunities for all female employees, whether or not they're in the family. One nonfamily woman reported that the environment and opportunities at her company were "very unfair toward women." She said leadership opportunities were for family first and men second. Family leaders had no idea these feelings existed.

Clearly, those who head family businesses need to address gender issues more actively. To start:

-- Consider the possibility that you may actually have a problem. Don't assume that because there aren't many women in your business, or because your daughters seem uninterested in it, or because no one has brought concerns to you, that you can take a pass on this subject. Instead, ask your daughters and other women to give you their views on the role of women as owners and managers in the business.

-- Think about getting a professional who is not a family member to head up human resources, handle your people issues, and develop training programs. We found this helped companies address their gender issues.

After completing this pilot study, we're committed to making gender issues a more significant part of our family business agenda. It's our hope that family business leaders will do the same.

Timothy G. Habbershon is the director of the Institute for Family Enterprising at the Arthur M. Blank Center for Entrepreneurship, Babson College

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