(Editor's Note: This is the sixth in a series of columns by family business leaders and advisors with information and ideas about topics unique to family businesses, developed in conjunction with the Conway Center for Family Business.)
By Bea Wolper
The founder-parents of family owned businesses often give mixed messages regarding what they expect their daughter to do to become a leader of the business. They will say, "Come into the business and work hard…and you will be the leader," while at the same time they expect her to be a stay-at-home mommy for their grandchildren.
Many times this is an unconscious bias creating yet another hurdle for women in family business. Satisfying the stereotype of an ideal business leader may be in conflict with the traditional views of how a mother "should" behave and may create questions as to whether that mom is suitable for the leadership position.
When dad sees his son work 60+ hours a week, he may say to his daughter, "Why can't you stay and do what Johnny does? Have someone else pick up the kids/go to school events/take Bobby to the doctor." The fact that the daughter takes time to do these things also creates sibling issues…the son may feel that his sister is "favored" because she is allowed to take care of family responsibilities, and he is expected not to do so.
In family businesses, the hats one wears are many: president, father, grandpa, vice president, daughter, sister, mother… and the pressure is to give 100% to each of these roles. The pressure is not just from parents or society, but the internal feelings that many women have that they are primarily responsible for home and family-even with a "supportive" spouse. Unfortunately, more often than not, the current perception of management still is that the employee most likely to put the duties at work before the duties of the family is the traditional "work-oriented" male.
Who in your family business leaves work to take the children to the doctor? Who has primary responsibility-if the electrician can only come between 2 and 4-to be at the house to let in the electrician? Who goes to school events? Regrettably, in interviewing over 100 local women who are in family businesses, almost all stated that they were the person primarily responsible.
In addition, this double bind extends to how the daughter acts in the business. Should she "act more like a man," or be feminine? In the landmark law case of a woman passed over for partnership in an accounting firm, Ms. Hopkins was told to be more assertive, but also to be less masculine and "dress more femininely"…wear makeup and more jewelry…etc. This was the "intolerable and impermissible Catch-22" that the United States Supreme Court cited when holding in Ms. Hopkins' favor.
The way to resolve the conflicting messages is a combination of communication and prioritization.
Family business councils can offer an outlet to discuss the many frustrations of trying to do everything for everyone, and can also offer the opportunity for understanding the pressures. Family members can discuss the ground rules for entry into the family business: family and non-family; male and female.
Daughters who are mothers, or who will be mothers, need to discuss the situation and put the founders/parents at ease that emergencies are covered, that responsibility is constant and that emotional pulls, although often a distraction, can often make a leader stronger.
Fortunately for family businesses, more and more women are successfully becoming their leaders-because in family business, women leaders are not only recognized and appreciated for their leadership qualities but also are appreciated for bringing increased empathy and multitasking to the position.
Bea Wolper is a co-founder of the Conway Center for Family Business and serves as an Advisory Board member. She facilitates the Center's Women in Family Business and Succession Planning Peer Groups. She is a partner in the law firm of Emens & Wolper LLP, in Columbus, Ohio. Her practice focuses on succession planning, estate planning, general corporate law, contracts and the buying and selling of businesses, with an emphasis on family-owned businesses. Wolper and her husband, Dick Emens, the Center's Executive Director, co-authored Family Business Basics: The Guide to Family Business Financial Success.