The conversation on the importance of equality for women in the workplace certainly isn’t new and the debate about whether we have come far in our quest certainly continues to divide the sexes at times.
While most conversations and arguments are carried out in the corporate sector, the women in family businesses tend to go about their work quietly, understanding the responsibility they carry to ensure that the family and the business will continue for generations to come.
Admittedly, family businesses have a much higher participation rate of women in senior leadership or in board roles, compared with the corporate sector — 22 per cent and 16 per cent, respectively, with a 20 per cent increase in C-suite roles since 2014 according to the Ernst & Young report into Women in Leadership from 2017.
However, the roles women play in this sector often extend to that of the family champion, ensuring longevity of the family legacy and fairness among next-generation members.
Often this role is not well understood, documented or discussed, yet, from my experience, it can make the difference between being one of the 30 per cent of family businesses that make it through the second generation or being one of the 70 per cent that are not successful in making the transition to the next generation, which often comprises daughters.
Communication between family members is the key component needed to ensure that the family business can survive the succession process. Often, these much-needed conversations are not fostered and the focus is placed solely on the business processes.
To make matters worse, with professional advisers continuing to drive transactional solutions into the family business sector, often aimed at the men at the helm of the businesses, is it any surprise that women’s voices and perspectives for the family and business are left behind?
I vividly remember an early conversation with a family matriarch who explained that she didn’t feel she had much to contribute to the family governance and succession conversation given that she didn’t work directly in the business.
She apologised for not having followed her own career and instead choosing to stay at home with the children, and she kept questioning the value she could add. After all, in her mind it was her husband who had built the business.
I remember wondering how I could explain the importance of the roles she had played, especially in encouraging her daughter to step into the father’s shoes.
Women often do not have the support network of other women who have found their voice to support the family’s side in the business and to ensure that the investment they made into the next generation, including their daughters, will continue to flourish and create the family and business conversations that provide harmony and balance.
The family business sector accounts for 70 per cent of all businesses in Australia with an average turnover of $12m and an average number of employees of 37, according to the MGI Australian Family and Private Business Survey 2010 (in conjunction with RMIT University).
Given the sector’s importance, it seems vital that the women in these businesses know they are not alone and have access to support networks of other women who understand their journey and can help them navigate it more easily.
If providing equality of pay and diversity in the boardroom are such important topics, isn’t supporting the matriarchs, the sisters and the daughters to find their voice to aid the survival of Australia’s many family businesses equally as important?