Gender Differences – Women Make Inroads at Family Businesses

According to the American Family Business Survey, the number of female CEOs or presidents has doubled every five years since 1997. The most recent survey, done in the summer of 2007, indicates that 24 percent of the businesses surveyed currently have a female CEO or president -“ up from about 5 percent in 1997. The growth should continue as 31 percent of those surveyed indicated that they may have a female successor.

The trend continues down the organizational chart as nearly 60 percent reported women in top management positions. “On average,” the survey offers, “the family businesses in our sample each employ nearly five family members, of which 60 percent are men and fully 40 percent are women.”

We all realize that there has been a trend of more women in the workforce, and that the glass ceiling is being broken more often. But, it seems that if Mom or Dad are holding the glass, it’s being shattered. Consider that only 2.5 percent of the Forbes 1000 are led by women. Also consider that women are gaining inroads into traditionally all-male positions and industries. Women have become common in the military, construction, bail bondsmen (no pun intended), movers-¦.

I believe that family businesses have led the way for many of these inroads. Take for example Michigan’s own “Two Men and a Truck.” The story was chronicled in the Autumn 2007 issue of Family Business Magazine. In the 1980s, two brothers, Brig and Jon Sorber, while they were in high school, started moving people in Lansing to earn some extra money. When they left for college and the phone kept ringing, their mother, Mary Ellen Sheets, saw an opportunity -“ and hired a pair of movers and bought a 14-foot-truck for $350. Today, Two Men and a Truck is in 28 states, Canada and Ireland, with 200 franchises and generating $200 million in revenues in 2006. Sheet’s daughter, Melanie Bergeron, was the company’s first franchisee in Atlanta until she moved back to Michigan and became the company president in 1994. In 1996, Bergeron’s brothers came on board as vice presidents. Eight years after her return to Michigan, Bergeron became CEO.

It is a great story of entrepreneurship and ingenuity fostered by a mother and daughter. Stories like this are common and are especially noteworthy when women find a way to break into what was once considered a man’s world.

But that’s not the only way we see women breaking the stereotypes. Institutions of higher education are now claiming larger female student populations than ever with men only accounting for 42 percent of enrollment according to The New York Times (July 9, 2006). Women are getting more degrees than men and getting them with higher honors. As women gain education and enter the workforce looking for careers, they often need to be geographically mobile. If they decide to have children, they need to develop a sensitive balancing act between motherhood and their career. Couple this with the growth of single parenthood and we have a real dilemma.

What better way to solve the career versus motherhood dilemma than to go to work for the family’s business? It is almost impossible to find a career where you can shatter the glass ceiling, find flexible work hours and get a ride to the kids’ sporting events by your CEO. On top of all that, the compensation package is normally hard to beat. It just makes sense that career-minded mothers look very closely at a career in the family business. And it is always great to come home and be with family.

Single parenthood, whether by design, accident or divorce, can force the employment issue toward a family business. Where else can a working single mom find needed support? One client even started a day care center on site when their divorced daughter came to work. It was a great way for Grandpa and Grandma to stop in and see the grandchildren. It also gave Mom great flexibility to do her job without worrying about the kids. (By the way, it opened a needed benefit for the other working moms as well.)

It is amazing how often the perception of “traditional roles” stifles our thinking about the organizational chart. When succession is the issue, primogenitor (rights of the first born son) still seems to be the default. The women in the family are often overlooked completely, regardless of their skills, accomplishments or desires. It is amazing that men looking for human capital can’t see beyond their noses when the solutions are right in front of them.

If you believe there are differences in gender beyond the obvious physical ones, then good managers should be able to capitalize on those differences and gain in performance. There is no doubt that women are better at certain tasks. In my previous life as a mechanical contractor, we were always eager to find women to do building finishes -“ yes, construction workers. They seemed to pay much more attention to detail and therefore we received a much smaller list of deficiencies -”the so-called punch list. Result: money saved.

That’s not all. Some of the stereotypes of women having a stronger “soft” side and being more relationship oriented might offer better management outcomes. While men have a tendency to be bottom line oriented, women might want to know if it felt right. (If you are male and you just rolled your eyes, then hold on a minute.) Profit that “feels right” could well mean that we are on target with our vision/mission, rather than just being happy with the black ink. Being on target usually means we know what we are doing and it leads to growth and stability.

If you have welcomed your women, or if you are a woman involved in or running the family business-¦bravo! Families should encourage all of their members to participate with the level of skills they bring to the table. Regardless of the reason your family’s women might enter your family’s business, they should be viewed as valuable assets who can bring new and innovative thinking to the table -“ that’s the board room table, not the kitchen table.

Richard Segal is the chair of the Family Business Council, a membership organization of family-owned businesses. He can be reached at [email protected].

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Richard Blanchard
Rick is the Managing Editor of Corp! magazine. He has worked in reporting and editing roles at the Port Huron Times Herald, Lansing State Journal and The Detroit News, where he was most recently assistant business editor. A native of Michigan, Richard also worked in Washington state as a reporter, photographer and editor at the Anacortes American. He received a bachelor of arts from the University of Michigan and a master’s in accountancy from the University of Phoenix.