Greater Flexibility for Female Leaders in Irish Family Businesses

26th October 2020

Posted In: The Topic

Traditionally, women in family business have played vital, albeit largely invisible, informal and unpaid roles in the business.

Although these roles are today much more visible and formalised, with a growing number of women assuming senior leadership positions, there is still evidence that succession by the first-born son remains the norm.

This is referred to as the rule of primogeniture in the family business literature. This landscape forms the opening to new research launched recently by the National Centre for Family Business at Dublin City University.

The research entitled ‘Female Leadership in Family Business’ found that female leaders have greater flexibility working within their own family business than working for a non-family employer.

While work-life balance can still be an issue for women leaders, the study highlights the greater degree of flexibility they have working in their family business, particularly for those participants with young children, with some opting to work part-time, semi-remotely, or adopting a four-day work week to accommodate their family caring duties.

As a direct result, these leaders interviewed were keen to adopt workplace policies within their own businesses and reported playing an important role in building a fair and supportive family business environment.

The study looks at the lived experiences of women in leadership roles in Irish family businesses and the barriers to leadership females can encounter compared to their male counterparts. It was conducted by Martina Brophy from the DCU Centre for Family Business and was officially launched at the Centre’s annual conference hosted virtually at DCU earlier this month.

Addressing attendees, Martina Brophy said: “Family businesses are inherently flexible due to their unique appreciation of managing both family and business dynamics.

This research supports the idea that family businesses can leverage their flexibility to create an advantage over non-family competitors.”

The research makes a number of recommendations to family businesses, including:

•Working to alleviate work-life balance issues that exist for both men and women by continuing to support flexible work options, keeping meetings to work hours and return-to-work options post-maternity leave.

•Empowering women in the family business by preparing them for leadership roles and succession of the family business is vital for businesses that want to be more gender conscious in their strategy and culture.

Speaking about the importance of the research, Dr Eric Clinton, Director of the DCU Centre for Family Business, said: This cutting edge research on female succession is critically important to our understanding of the dynamics of Irish family firms. Our results offer us unique insights into female succession and leadership in industries which are typically male-orientated, such as construction, haulage, and manufacturing. 

Furthermore, this female succession study sheds light on situations where females have older male siblings working in the business who were not chosen to lead the family business into the future.”

Few studies have been undertaken to identify the gender related barriers and opportunities to succession and top leadership for women in Irish family businesses. Supported by the Irish Research Council and PwC Ireland, this study took place across a two-year period and comprised in-depth interviews with 14 female leaders in Irish family businesses of various sizes and sectors. Participants were women who are, or recently have been, managers and/or directors of their family businesses in which a male family member of the same generation is also involved in management or directorship. Half of the participants came from family businesses that have not yet undergone succession (i.e. leadership transfer) and half were post-succession firms.

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