The power of women in family business

 A generational shift in purpose and influence

The STEP Project Global Consortium and KPMG Private Enterprise are pleased to have the opportunity to share the insights gathered from more than 1,800 family business leaders in every major region of the world. The STEP 2019 Global Family Business Survey examined the impact of changing demographics on the future of family businesses and was followed up with in-depth interviews among family business leaders across the globe, many of whom generously agreed to openly share their experiences in a series of four published articles.

The first article, “The courage to choose wisely: Why the succession decision may be a defining moment in your family business” explored the ways in which changing demographics are influencing succession decisions and the succession planning process itself.


“The power of women in family business: A generational shift in purpose and influence” takes an up-close look at the demographic shifts that are changing the role of women in family businesses – the value that women contribute, the various forms of influence they may have on family businesses and the unique competitive advantages they can deliver.

Encouraging studies have examined women’s changing roles over the years. However, studies that examine the role of women in family businesses specifically are sparse and fragmented. Various scholars have indicated the need for more systematic and extensive research into the factors that are affecting women’s involvement, leadership and performance in family businesses. (1,2)

Based on the STEP 2019 Global Family Business Survey and in-depth interviews with male and female family business leaders globally, we have set out to understand more about the impact that changing demographics are having on the role of women in family business and the influence they are having on the success of their businesses and their families.

About the STEP 2019 Global Family Business Survey

The Successful Transgenerational Entrepreneurship Practices (STEP) Project Global Consortium and KPMG Private Enterprise entered into a strategic alliance to conduct research to develop a deeper understanding of the impact of changing demographics on succession and governance practices for business families.

The STEP 2019 Project Global Family Business report surveyed more than 1,800 family business leaders from 33 countries across Europe, Central Asia, North America, Latin America, the Caribbean, Asia, the Pacific, the Middle East and Africa. The survey provided an opportunity for the participants to provide their views on how changing demographics affect family business governance, succession, societal impact, entrepreneurial orientation and performance.

As a follow-up to the survey, more than 25 personal interviews were conducted with family business leaders (who represent some of the largest family businesses in the world) prior to COVID-19 and following its onset beginning in March 2020 until the publication date. The insights gathered from these interviews helped to deepen our understanding of the context behind the survey results, and allowed us to explore these insights further in this article, the second in our four-part series. This article examines the emerging role and influence of women in family business.

Emerging from the shadows

To begin, we believe it is important to acknowledge that the increasing number of economies throughout the world in the last 40 years. Women have assumed leadership roles in industries as far- ranging as automobile manufacturing, mining, construction and advanced technologies. Currently, 18 percent of family business leaders globally are women, with the highest percentage belonging to family businesses in Europe and Central Asia. And while the numbers are generally lowest in North America, recent statistics compiled by National Bank of Canada (3) show that 13 percent of the 38 companies in its 2020 Canadian Family index are led by a female chief executive versus five percent among S&P/TSX composite-listed companies.

In some cases, women have traditionally played a somewhat ‘invisible’ role in their family businesses, working behind the scenes in administrative duties, as informal advisors and moderators or focusing exclusively on managing their households.

No one said it would be easy to break away from those traditional responsibilities. The very nature of the family business culture and the multiple roles that female family members typically play has helped to keep the glass ceiling intact for some women who continue to have these dual roles, doubling their efforts in the business as well as in the family.

Kim Schoepflin, CEO of Kwatani in South Africa describes it this way: “You are expected to dedicate yourself to the business, be a perfect mother and caretaker, be home early and still finish the job. My father used to say, ‘you’d better leave the office by 5:00 because I don’t want you going home late’. He was concerned about the care of his grandchildren, but you still have to finish the job. Behave like a mother, but make sure the business is being well run.”

Even as cofounders and co-owners of the family business, women were often found on the sidelines, facing similar challenges related to gender discrimination and stereotyping to those found in the broader corporate world. Though they may have some involvement – and certainly an interest – in the family business, women’s efforts and contributions have not always been recognized or acknowledged in an official position or with monetary benefits. Often, they assumed less visible roles as informal advisors or performing accounting or administrative work.

Many women interviewed shared the view that unconscious bias continues to lie beneath the surface in some areas of modern society. And because people are not able to see bias, it is imperative to call it out.

The women family business leaders we spoke with generally agreed that legislation and mandatory quotas are not the answer, however. While they believe that quotas create greater awareness of bias and stereotypes and can be a starting point in countries where gender equality is not yet a cultural norm, none of the women we spoke with are in favor of forcing rules and programs onto companies.

Previous research has shown that gender stereotyping is often reflected in the roles and decision-making tasks that are handled by each partner in the business. Even when their credentials are equal to, or better than, those of their husbands’, it isn’t uncommon for women to discover that other businesspeople bypass them and look to their spouses for final decisions.(4) Sometimes, this is based on the misconception by the outside world that women hold positions in the family business only because they are married to – or related to – the ‘boss’.

1. (Mussolino, Cicelin, Iacono, Consiglio, Martinez, 2019; Gimenez-Jimenez, Edelman, Minola, Calabrò, Cassia, 2020).

2. Gimenez-Jimenez, D., Edelman, L. F., Minola, T., Calabrò, A., & Cassia, L. (2020). An Intergeneration Solidarity Perspective on Succession Intentions in Family Firms. EntrepreneurshipTheory and Practice.

4. Cole, P. M. (1997). Women in family business. Family Business Review, 10(4), 353-371. Equal Measures 2030. (2019). 2019 EM2030 SDG Gender Index. Surrey, United Kingdom. Retrieved from em2030-sdg-gender-index/ on July 24, 2020