Sons vs Daughters in Family Businesses

FAMILY BUSINESS FILES of Prof. Parimal Merchant

As most of my readers will know by now, I conduct a course in Family Business Management at the SP Jain Global School, and have been interacting with the sons and daughters of business families for over two decades. Well – more sons than daughters actually. One thing that has always been a particularly distressing thing for me personally, having a daughter myself, is how few girls participate in these courses. Whether our batch size is 16, or 160, or 300, one factor that remains constant is that the proportion of females never more than 10%.

Born Unequal

Most of my students belong to business families of good standing, and can be expected to have had access to good education and global influences. So why aren’t girls encouraged to learn about the family business or become a part of it? Leave aside joining the family business, why are so few girls getting a business education? As part of a review exercise, the admissions committee came up with four possible reasons:

  1. In business families, the proportion of daughters is low.
  2. The daughters in family businesses have aspirations do not involve learning business management, or joining the family business.
  3. Business families do not encourage their daughters to get a business education or to join the business.
  4. Even after family encouragement, girls simply do not have a business aptitude, and fail to perform in admission tests.

Now, we can discount the first option right off the bat, of course – there is no evidence whatsoever to suggest that business families have fewer daughters. While it is true that traditional families in India have preferred sons over daughters, particularly when it comes to carrying on the family name or the family business, the actual sex ratio is more or less fairly balanced. And there are so many women who have succeeded – against all odds – in careers and businesses that the hypothesis that they would fail to perform just because of their sex also has to be ruled out.

Do Business and Women not Mix?

So now we are left with the hypotheses that

  1. Most girls are themselves not willing to join family businesses, and have other interests or ambitions in life.
  2. Their families do not support or encourage them to join the family business.

Now, both these reasons sound more plausible, particularly in the Indian socio-economic context. When I say socio-economic, the social conditions that discourage women to work are well known, but there are economic factors too, in the sense that families with limited resources will simply prefer to utilise them for other things – to educate the sons, or for the daughter’s marriage – but not for their daughter’s education. Simply put, our society is conditioned to push boys and girls into pre-defined roles, and these biases are constantly being reinforced and strengthened by our media, our politicians, and our social and religious gurus.

When it comes to popular entertainment, TV shows becoming more and more regressive in portraying women is a fact. The movies do seem to present a more progressive and liberal outlook when it comes to gender roles, but this is only so on the surface. In the real sense, gender roles are subtly defined in most popular films as well. While the hero is shown as determined and confident, the heroine always ends up timid and helpless, waiting for the hero to come and save her like a knight in shining armour.

Some Things Change, Some Things Remain the Same

This has been so since the time of our ancient epics. In the Ramayana, for example, had there been no Mandodari or Kaikayi, Ram would have become king quite early on, and a long epic would have been cut short, literally. Had Sita not whimsically demanded the skin of a deer, Ravan would not have had a chance to kidnap her (necessitating the obligatory rescue act by her man) and again, what we would have got was a novella and not an epic.So it is in the Mahabharat, where Draupadimakes an ill-advised remark targeting Duryodhan, to the effect that children of blind parents can only be blind themselves. The seeds of revenge and eventually war are sown, again due to a woman. The upshot being that while wars and fighting are often the lot of men, it is women who are the cause of them.

Even today, while jokes will often make fun of particular male foibles, when it comes to women the joke is often on the whole of womanhood itself, as if all women are the same.

A leading and progressive businessman is reported to have brought up his son insisting that he complete a CA and MBA, in that order.On other hand, it was ‘enough’ for his daughter to be a good human being and a good hostess, not necessarily in that order. And now we have TV serials, which, presumably carrying on the tradition from our hallowed epics, show women either as silent sufferers, or as scheming and evil vamps. All these factors thickly crowding the environment of every home, naturally take a toll on the psyche of girls growing up, and the sad thing is that it starts right from infancy.

Imprisoned Dreams

Time and again, in any typical Indian business family, the son will be reminded that he has to one day take over the business, while the daughter is reminded that she has to take over the cooking. Not in her own house, of course, but in the house of the family she will be married into. It is rare in a business family that the incoming bahu will be encouraged to be a part of the business, after all – the kitchen is where she is headed. She will end up, whether she wants to or not, confined to bringing up kids and managing the house. These women may even find it fulfilling for a few years, but after the kids grow up, they will definitely have a vacuum in their lives. Particularly since they will have no connect with the business side of things, or even the outside world in some cases. And it will be too late to start life all over again. The movie ‘English Vinglish’ was a good depiction of the women who find themselves at a loose end in middle age, but then, you do not find deliverance as easily in life as you do in the movies.

Of course, we must not forget that parents are sometimes as rigid that their sons must join the family business, even if their dreams are of something else, but that is a subject for a separate discussion.

Things being the way they are,can we accuse girls for not having career aspirations or should we sympathise with them? Do we reinforce their helplessness or do we help them to reestablish faith in themselves and develop their own identity and own personalities form a young age.Come to think of it, this instinct of ‘helping’ women just reinforces all the stereotypes we just talked about. It is a societal problem that can only change when society itself changes.

Forcing someone to stay confined to predefined roles simply cannot be condoned, but even otherwise, do we realise that almost 50 per cent of human resources that are available to business families are going to waste? With all family businesses searching for competent employees who could bring a‘ownership perspective’ to their jobs, why are they ignoring the potentially invaluable assets that are already available to them, right in their own homes?

Of course, the traditionalists will have their own arguments – it will affect family harmony, the upbringing of kids, etc. But what they must realise that the decision is not theirs to make. Every woman must decide for herself what kind of life she wants to lead, whether it be within the confines of the home, or out in the business world.

The role of women in family business is too complicated and important a topic to be limited to just one column, and we will be deliberating more about this topic in future articles.

Parimal Merchant



Parimal Merchant is the Global head of the FMB programme at the SP Jain School of Global Management.