Women's progress: Steady but slow

By Barbara Spector

In a book of family business cartoons published in 1990, women are depicted as nagging wives, wealthy widows, marriageable daughters and “Ms. Buxum,” the secretary. We’ve come a long way, baby.

Today, that view of women in family business isn’t just reactionary; it’s ridiculous. Around the world, one can find women thriving in leading roles at their family firms: as company executives, board directors, trustees and family leaders. But despite this progress, it remains unusual to see a female CEO or board chair of a multigenerational family firm. Though founders’ daughters, granddaughters and great-granddaughters are succeeding in the management ranks and in the boardroom, their brothers (or male non-family executives) are still more likely to get the top jobs.

In a 2016 survey of key decision makers at 160 family companies conducted by PwC, only 10% of the respondents were women. The findings of that study, however, hinted that the picture might be different in the future. Nearly two-thirds (64%) of those surveyed said their NextGen women and men would be considered equally for future leadership positions. Time will tell whether the decision makers will merely consider the NextGen women or actually anoint them as successors.

Sexism (overt or subtle) isn’t the only factor keeping women from the corner office. Some women decline the CEO’s job, often out of concern that the demands of the position would interfere with childrearing. An advantage of working in a family business is that those who want to maximize time with the kids needn’t withdraw from the workforce entirely; family companies tend to be more understanding than non-family firms about the need for work-life balance.

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One way that women commonly reach the top of their family businesses is through the unexpected death or departure of a male CEO, whether it be their father, husband or brother. That’s what happened to Katharine Graham, legendary publisher of the Washington Post, portrayed by Meryl Streep in the recent film The Post. Graham took over the Washington Post Co. after the 1963 suicide of her husband, Phil Graham

As Family Business noted in a 2001 article, Katharine Graham had not been involved in operations at the Post and had to learn the business quickly. She was viewed with resentment by company executives until she built her own team, including executive editor Benjamin Bradlee. When the company went public, she ensured family control through a dual-class share structure, and she orchestrated a smooth transition to her son, Donald Graham. Though she hadn’t planned to lead the family enterprise, Katharine Graham excelled in that role. But her legacy is bittersweet. Though the Grahams remain in business, they sold the Post to Amazon founder Jeff Bezos in 2013, 12 years after Katharine’s death.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, women are more likely than men to hold a college degree. Their educational achievements are engendering more opportunities to join their family businesses. Let’s hope these opportunities lead more of them to the highest ranks.

Copyright 2018 by Family Business Magazine. This article may not be posted online or reproduced in any form, including photocopy, without permission from the publisher. For reprint information, contact bwenger@familybusinessmagazine.com.

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March/April 2018

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