Richard Willsher is a finance and business writer with a background in international investment banking. www.richardwillsher.com
Men still account for the lions' share of entrepreneurial business, but reports indicate that women are fighting their ground. Research shows that women have the skills, all that's missing is the confidence. Or perhaps they just don't want to be involved, says Richard Willsher
Successful businesswomen make the headlines. They are newsworthy, unusual, out-of-the-ordinary. So has anything really changed when it comes to women performing senior roles in the business world, especially in family businesses?
We could track the careers of Donatella Versace at the eponymous design house, Elizabeth Murdoch at News International, Banco Santander's Ana Patricia Botin or Body Shop's Anna Roddick, but these are business celebrities. To study them to learn about women in ordinary family businesses would be like writing about Microsoft's Bill Gates, Amazon's Jeff Bezos or Google's Sergey Brin as examples of run-of-the-mill entrepreneurs. Research reflects a very different picture.
The findings of Kate Mulholland's 'Class, Gender and the Family Business' study are, frankly, depressing. Drawing upon data based on 70 of the richest enterprising families in the Midlands in the UK, she concludes that although women often play a crucial role in the formation and support for family businesses, they are disadvantaged. They play second fiddle to their men folk, often perform no formal part in their families' businesses and, if they do, they are unlikely to be in a senior position. They often make considerable personal sacrifices so their husbands can spend much of their time away from the family home running 'the business'. This is the traditional way and Mulholland concludes that not much has changed.
However, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that women now play a bigger part than ever before, especially in new business activity. "Women's entrepreneurship is expanding around the world," according to the Global Enterprise Monitor's (GEM) '2005 Report on Women and Entrepreneurship'. "Women represent more than one-third of all people involved in entrepreneurial activity and are likely to play an even greater role when informal sectors are considered." Drawing on worldwide data, it says that men still account for the lion's share of entrepreneurial activity. However, another report from the same authors ('Women and Family-Owned Business') says, "Woman-owned businesses in the US have increased by 14% in the last five years. In the same period, the number of women owners of family businesses has increased by 37%". A similar trend is reported by research in other countries, particularly the UK and continental Europe.
And then when you start talking to women who run businesses and their advisers the picture starts to become more colourful. "Don't make gender an issue," says Emma Harrison, who runs a £100 million turnover company called A4e in the education and training sector. "Be a good business person. The only businesses that succeed are those where the people are passionate about what they do." This view is endorsed by Sally Preston who founded and runs Babylicious, which supplies a range of baby foods to major retailers. "I don't think that being a woman running a family business is an issue at all." Her focus is running her highly successful enterprise.
Both Harrison and Preston share another trait; they are both founders, rather than the inheritors of the businesses they run. It is, however, quite a common feature of businesses involving women family members that they have inherited from the previous generation – often from their fathers. "Although it's often the boys who are expected to go into the business and take over from their fathers, when daughters join the family firm it often works very well," explains Peter Leach, chair of BDO's Centre for Family Business. "There's less competitiveness. When daughters become involved in the business they are better able to manage the older generation than the men. And I think it's easier to make a transition from Dad to daughter because Dad lets go, whereas if the son's there, Dad's always interfering."
Family businesses are attractive to women, especially when they want to leave the corporate world. Flexibility as to how they organise their time and where they work is often part of the appeal. This was one of the attractions for Sally Preston when it came to starting Babylicious. "From what we know about women who run businesses, they are women who leave corporate organisations and who want to do it for themselves," says Dr Glenda Stone, CEO of Aurora, the women-focused research, marketing and events specialist. "They often start from scratch as well."
Work-life balance, often including having children, is also part of the appeal, but Dr Stone says, "It is a myth that starting your own business gives you work-life balance. Women who leave large corporate organisations for this reason are often shocked because there are more cases where women sacrifice work-life balance to build a successful business." Tania Hine of The British Association of Women Entrepreneurs (BAWE) agrees. "When you are facing the challenges of building a business, the work-life balance really doesn't work. If you're in business you have to give it 100%. Which is why," she adds, "many women entrepreneurs start businesses later in life" – when the early stages of birthing and bringing up children are behind them.
Are there certain sectors and types of business that women find more attractive than others? Tania Hine, whose organisation networks with similar organisations in other countries, says that while women tend to enter service businesses in the UK, this not so pronounced elsewhere. In continental European countries she knows of many large engineering and building concerns lead by women and, particularly in Russia, there are plenty of female-run construction companies.
Dawn Gibbins who founded and runs Flowcrete, a world-leading flooring specialist business and a Veuve Clicquot Business Woman of the Year says, "I have met thousands of women in the last three years... from all sectors of business." She concedes however, "The main focus for women starting their own businesses is in health, lifestyle, fashion, arts and people development. Women – particularly the more mature women (over 40) have a passion to make the world a better place and turn into Green Goddesses."
So, do women have particular skills to bring to family businesses? Aurora's Glenda Stone says, "This is the nature/nurture argument, but women tend to be the holders together of communities and families. They are the glue, the social cement. So when things become a bit argumentative or turbulent in a business it will often be the women that remind people of the bond they share and try to start everyone moving in the same direction. Some subscribe to the view that 'women unite and men compete'. In addition to their sharp business minds and grasp of the numbers, women often bring with them the people skills."
The biggest problem that some women face according to Dr Stone, Sally Preston and others is the lack of confidence when it comes to operating in the potentially cut-throat environment of the business world. This runs against the nature of many women who care more about what their businesses produce and for those working in their enterprises, more than simply turning a fast buck.
Despite this view, after reading the research and speaking to a range of people concerned with women in family businesses, one is left asking whether there is an issue left to discuss. Howard Hackney, head of family business at advisers Grant Thornton says. "Nowadays women have complete equality in family businesses if they want it. In many cases they don't necessarily want it and therefore you won't find all women who are part of the family, involved in the family business. They often don't want that involvement. If they want to be successful in the business they have to have that desire."
Flowcrete's Dawn Gibbins says, "You need to enlighten British businesses to wake up to women. Government research has revealed the 68% of our nation's wealth will be in female hands by 2025. On average women live 15 years longer that men – so the wealth is being passed to the women. Women are becoming the most powerful buying influence in business and consumer markets today."
So perhaps women in business are newsworthy after all, but not because of the profile of a few glam celebrity businesswomen, but because they know better how to reach markets that are strongly influenced by women. Both women and men who run family businesses are likely to be able to relate to that.