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Women in Family Business - The Power of Language

Women constitute more than half of the world's population, control the majority of the world's financial assets, and stand to inherit the bulk of the inter-generational wealth transfer. Further, women are creating new businesses at a greater rate than their male peers, and stand to inherit ownership and management of existing family businesses in higher percentages than in the past. In recognition of these trends, the financial services industry has launched a number of programs focused on their female clients. Despite some important recent initiatives, the family business advisory community risks lagging behind. This is reflected in industry parlance as well as interactions among professionals and family members. This post focuses on some commonly used terms that, inadvertently, may be putting families, and the potential for the results of work that professionals conduct with them, at a disadvantage. Given these important trends, business families today might need new language to meet the changing roles of women, as well as other family members. In this context, it may be helpful to review some traditional terms and the power they might have on family business work.

Patriarch: Two decades ago, this term was declining in use, and perhaps going out of fashion. Since then, as the focus on wealthy families and family businesses has increased, it has risen like a phoenix from the ashes. Today, the Patriarch is the new "It" guy. While the term may accurately reflect the role of the leader of a particular family, it is potentially overused and applied to contemporary families that may no longer fit into a patriarchal system. Using this term for all families limits the ability of advisors and family alike to understand the actual reality of family relationships today. Starting without the expectation that there is a patriarch and discovering the nature of the existing relationships within the family, or at least not overemphasizing the patriarch if there is one, could lead to more productive work with a broader range of families.

Girls: Often, the adult female members of a family or business advisory team are referred to as "girls," while the males are consistently called "men." While the usage might seem innocuous and be considered a term of endearment, there are several risks of using this term to describe mature women. By definition, it puts women at a lower level of perceived maturity and development than their male peers. That is simple to understand. More complicated is the way that the term might be interpreted by some family members or professionals. While many women might not find the term offensive, it puts those women in the family (or the advisory team) who find the term demeaning in an awkward position. If they react, they can been seen as difficult; if not, they might harbor resentment or silently "check out" of some of the work to be done. It can be difficult for a professional to know which is the case. By not using the term, there is no need for concern about how it will be interpreted.

Chief Emotional Officer: This term has been in vogue over the past decade, though its usage seems to be waning. Often, it reflects an assumption that the husband is the Chief Executive Officer of the family business while his counterpart wife is the "Chief Emotional Officer" who tends to the family and provides the emotional glue to keep it together. While this might reflect actual roles in many families, in increasing numbers of families the roles played by male and female family members might not be so clearly defined. Indeed, there may be a male member of the family who is actually serving as Chief Emotional Officer, but who will be overlooked if it is assumed to be woman's work. Once again, it would be helpful to do further investigation to find out whether the term fits – and to whom – and then apply it more deliberately.

Language matters. It reflects underlying assumptions and sets expectations, both of which are essential to productive family business work. It is time to consider how language used in the family business context might help or hinder the important work to be done by the families of today and tomorrow.

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