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Women often take less formal roles in family firms as mediators, supporters and advisors, but research shows that this involvement is nevertheless critical to the ongoing success of both firms and families.

An upcoming seminar hosted by the UBC Sauder Business Families Centre aims to explore how women lead family firms and forge impact through these informal roles. We explore these topics in this Q&A with Vanessa Strike, UBC Sauder’s CIBC Professor of Applied Business Family Studies.

How do women figure into family firms in Canada?

Traditionally, the role of women has been more subtle: as “chief emotional officers,” “confidantes to the CEO,” and “chief advisors to the upcoming generation,” they not only mediate conflicts within the family or between the firm and family, but also provide tacit advice within the family circle.

The roots of this role can be found in psychology research, which suggests that identity development evolves differently in males and females. For males, identity develops through independence, whereas females focus on attachment and relationships with key people in their lives, like family.

Nevertheless, even though the role of women in family firms is often less immediately visible when it comes to decision-making, they play a critical role in the continuity and growth of these firms.

What is the most significant challenge facing women in family-run businesses today?

Challenges continue to be based on gender stereotypes and discrimination, and traditional family roles that promote the decreased visibility of women and promote their function in mediating conflicts over roles between the firm and family. While women in family firms are often directly involved in the firm, they often do not hold formal roles, nor do they receive recognition for their contribution. Their work often remains in the shadows. This leads us to underestimate their influence within the family. Nevertheless, research suggests that while women may remain invisible, they are fundamental to the success of both the firm and the family.

What does the future look like for female leadership of family businesses in Canada?

We’re seeing more women taking an active role in the family firm and often taking the helm. EY recently surveyed the largest family firms globally and found that they have a higher percentage of women in top management positions and on the board when compared to their non-family counterparts. While studies suggest that women hold anywhere from six to 13 per cent of top management positions in widely-held firms, in family firms this amount averages 22 per cent. Furthermore, the EY survey suggested that almost 70 per cent of family firms are considering a woman as their next CEO.