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A Pan-African initiative by Mary Oppenheimer Daughters

Women in African
family businesses
a still untapped opportunity
Nadine Kammerlander

FORUM building ties, deepening knowledge, driving success
‘Women in African family businesses’ was commissioned by The Family Forum, a
pan-African initiative of Mary Oppenheimer Daughters family office (MODO). A
brief description of The Family Forum follows at the end of this publication.
The Family Forum is headed by Terence McNamee.
For more information, email familyforum@modaughters.com
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Women in African
family businesses
a still untapped opportunity
Key points����������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������4
How family firms benefit from having more female leaders������������������������������������������������������������6
Why family businesses are male-dominated – and why women take the back seats�������������������� 7
Gender Parity in Africa ������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������8
How to change the world for a more female future? Best practices for societies and firms������10
What society can do��������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������10
Indian courts granting women equal rights to inherit family business������������������������������������������12
What firms can do������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������14
Woman granted equal share of inheritance in Egypt����������������������������������������������������������������������15
Maintaining a high ratio of female managers����������������������������������������������������������������������������������16
Works consulted for this study and suggested further reading ������������������������������������������������17

About the author

Professor Nadine Kammerlander is the Chaired Professor of Family Business at
Germany’s Otto Beisheim School of Management, one of the leading business
schools in Europe. Her research interests focus on innovation, governance, and
succession in family firms.

Published in December 2019 by

Mary Oppenheimer Daughters Proprietary Limited
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Key points
0 It is estimated that roughly 30 per cent of large companies in Africa
are family businesses – a number that is in line with international
0 Within Africa, women play a huge role in small-sized/micro family
businesses but are invariably excluded from leadership positions in
large, internationally-active family firms
0 Male domination of large family businesses is common the world
over – in Germany, only 6 per cent of the top managers of the 1 000
largest family businesses are female
0 Female and male entrepreneurs differ in what they say about running
their business – but there are no big differences in how they actually
run them
0 Negative reinforcement from parents and siblings, from an early age,
encourages many women to not consider themselves as potential
successors of their family’s business
0 Cross-gender successions – e.g. from male patriarch to female
successor – run more smoothly than is typically recognised.
0 Female successors generally have higher levels of human capital –
i.e. better educated, more qualifications and greater work experience
– than male successors
0 Formalised processes – e.g. family charter – add transparency, de-
bias decision-making processes and provide female successors with
equal access to key information
0 Things are changing: the number of family firm leaders who are
women increased by 14 per cent in the years from 2002 to 2007 in
most advanced economies. Today at least one-third of family firm
decision-makers consider a female CEO successor
0 Today in Africa, one in four board members are women. A ratio on
par with Europe

4 Women in African family businesses

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Women in African
family businesses
a still untapped opportunity
Family businesses are a dominant force in the global economy. They account for between
70 to 95 per cent of the businesses in most countries. While many of them are small,
the biggest companies tend to be dominated by one or a few families.

Within Africa, it is estimated that roughly 30 per cent of large businesses are family businesses
– a number that is in line with international norms. Those businesses contribute significantly
to employment, GDPs and, of course, the wealth of the owning families. While succession has
traditionally been considered a challenge for family firms, greater knowledge of the associated
pitfalls and better planning lead to improved survivability and longevity of family firms.

When taking a closer look at big family firms, there’s one striking observation: Most of them
are male-dominated. This is true for Africa as elsewhere in the world. Consider, for instance,
Remgro, Richemont, Dantata, Ibru, METL Group, Bakhresa Group, Bidco Oil Refineries,
Madvhani Group, and Ramco Group, which are all in the hands of male family successors.
Among the 2014 Forbes list of top 10 family businesses in Africa, only Pick n Pay had a woman
at its top, Suzanne Ackerman, who serves as company director. While
women contribute substantially to, and comprise a significant portion
of entrepreneurs among communities, they seem to be stalled in their
way to the top of bigger family firms. While the traditional, small-sized
Some family businesses
family businesses in Africa are often associated with women and the
key role they play in such enterprises, females are largely neglected in
explicitly exclude
larger, internationally active African family businesses.
female offspring from
The phenomenon of male domination is neither new nor unknown
in other parts of the world. In Germany, only 6 per cent of the top taking any responsible
managers of the 1 000 largest family businesses are female, according
to a 2018 study. Some family businesses still explicitly exclude female positions in the firm
offspring from taking any responsible positions in their families’
business. A recent article on the German padlock-manufacturer ABUS,
a reputable and well-established family business that is generally known for its focus on values
and its strong support for the community, reveals that this family, for more than a century, has
excluded women from any ownership claims and still does so in 2019.

Does the absence of women in the top management positions of their families’ businesses
mean that they lack influence? Generally speaking, no. Indeed, women’s influence on their
families’ businesses is often underestimated by managers, consultants, and even by women
themselves. Women have always played a role in the businesses that belong to their husbands,
siblings, or parents. Yet their role has often been described in the literature on family business
as that of the ‘invisible’ spouse that takes on more caring roles: support for husbands, back
office work (e.g. typing letters), HR-related roles and ‘office housework’ (such as buying flowers
or cakes for celebrations at the work place); or they served as sounding boards for their
husbands when discussing important strategic ideas at the dinner table. Beyond that, female

Women in African family businesses 5

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members of business families typically occupy fewer official roles than their male counterparts;
and they are less often paid than them. Young daughters often do unpaid work for the family
business in their vacation, while young sons are paid for the same jobs.

How family firms benefit from having more

female leaders
While such practices of preferring male over female family members in the business has
been practiced for centuries, there are compelling reasons why such traditions must end and
leadership succession practices should move towards inclusion of women.

First, diverse leadership teams are beneficial for the company. An abundance of academic
research reveals the following: when a simple, routine-task needs to be solved, a homogenous
team is likely fastest in completion. However, as soon as the task becomes ‘out of the box’
and requires creativity, diverse teams become the real performers. The characteristics often
ascribed to women such as care, peace, harmony, and stability of relationships might add to the
firm’s long-term advantages. Especially in a changing world in which stakeholder orientation
and sustainability issues become increasingly important.

While research on leadership styles of female leaders in Africa is scarce, evidence from
elsewhere suggests that women prefer participative leadership styles – which in turn make
it easier to retain talented employees, an issue that was ranked top in a recent survey of
African family businesses. The McKinsey & Company ‘Women Matter
Africa’ study (2016) revealed that those African firms with highest
As soon as the task numbers of female representatives on the company boards or in the
executive committees had, on average, 20 per cent (board) or 14 per
becomes ‘out of the box’ cent (executive committee) higher levels of profits compared to the
industry standard, suggesting perhaps a positive correlation between
… diverse teams become female involvement and firm performance.

the real performers Second, due consideration of both male and female successors
might help with succession problems. Finding the right successor as
chairperson for the company has become an increasingly difficult task.
Globalisation and digitalisation have made the business world more volatile, more uncertain,
more complex and more ambiguous. Dealing with those challenges requires dedicated,
smart, and hard-working people at the top of the company. Consideration of male and female
offspring often doubles the chances of finding persons with those qualities. This should be
especially so in Africa, where the concept of the extended family exists and a broader set
of individuals falls into the ‘family’ category than in most developed countries. Studies have
shown that cross-gender successions such as those from a male patriarch to a female successor
run more smoothly than is typically recognised.

Due consideration of daughters and sons might not only prove good for the business. It might
also be beneficial for the family. When societies become more democratic and inclusive,
women tend to ask for their fair share more often. A recent study from Switzerland illustrates
that perceived justice among siblings is an important driver of family harmony. As such,
finding the best successor, instead of relying on gender and birth order, might increase the
satisfaction of children.

When talking to young women at universities, they often share concerns about balancing
career and family in the future. Family firms could provide a promising ground for solving this
dilemma. For family-member women, the family firm can grant job flexibility, job security, as
well as mentoring through relatives. (Family) firms with women at the top are more likely to

6 Women in African family businesses

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install women-friendly workplaces and, as such, the positive effect might trickle down to lower
levels of employees, including non-family members.

Why family businesses are male-dominated –

and why women take the back seats
The marginalisation of women in business is typically linked to tradition and the guiding
principles of primogeniture, which dictate that the family firm be handed over to the oldest
son. In African societies, where striving for collective well-being and respect for ancestors/
elders is deeply entrenched, primogeniture is still the primary succession path. But it would be
a simplification to believe that by abandoning primogeniture, this situation could be changed
easily. Indeed, the absence of women at the top of medium- and large-sized family businesses
has myriad root causes. Factors that hinder women to get to the top of family firms exist at
both societal and firm level.

Until recently, entrepreneurs tended to believe that their daughters would not be as successful
with running the business as their sons. The oft-assumed cliché was – and partly still is – that
women are less competitive, less strategic, less good with numbers, less logical, and not tough
enough to grow the business. Male successors, in contrast, are often
seen as risk-seeking, independent, forceful, rational, and emotionally
stable – all desirable for firm success and growth. Male successors
Hardly any evidence for those differences exists. Instead, studies
suggest that female and male entrepreneurs differ in what they say
are often seen
about running their business – but there are no big differences in
how they actually run the businesses. Though many clichés about
as risk‑seeking,
differences persist, they are gradually waning in parts of the world
where women in business is actively studied. But in some respects,
the clichés have not so much vanished as re-appeared in different
forceful, rational,
Psychologists have increasingly observed a phenomenon which they and emotionally stable
label ‘benevolent sexism.’ In essence: fathers no longer claim that
their daughters are unable to lead the business; rather, that they want – all desirable for firm
to protect their daughters from the burden of leading the business.
They refer to the time-consuming nature of leading the business, the success and growth
‘ugliness’ of many decisions that need to be taken when running it,
and the general sacrifices one needs to make along the way.

(Father to daughter) I do not want you to put as much time and effort into the business
as I did. I do not want that you have to work for many weekends. I do not want you to
hardly have time for vacation with the family. For that reason, I do not want you to become
my successor.

While the reasoning is different from lack-of-competence stereotypes, the result is the
same: women are not perceived as potential successors. Most incumbent family business
entrepreneurs use those ‘protection’ arguments when talking about their daughters – yet not
when talking about their sons.

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Role conflicts
A second main reason that prevents women from becoming successors in their parents’
family business is role conflicts. Assumptions about ‘proper’ roles (women – household;
men – outside world) typically are transmitted and reinforced by education at home and at
school, through interaction with peers, through media and partly even through regulation.

Studies have shown that strong family ties limit the ability of female African entrepreneurs
to experiment and show creativity and growth ambitions in their businesses. Things may be
slowly changing, however. For instance, Rwanda now ‘leads’ the international country ranking
according to female representation in national political legislatures, where more than 60 per
cent of representatives are female. Moreover, OECD data shows that the ‘gender equality
index’ rose from 57 to 60 points in North Africa from 1980 to 2000 and from 62 to 66 points in
Sub-Saharan Africa. More recently, there has been an increasing awareness of the importance
of girls’ education and several policies regarding gender-responsive
budgeting have been implemented, mirroring the increasing
When stating their awareness that women or girls should be fostered and supported in
the same way as men or boys are.
objectives in a friendly Mathokwana Mopeli from South Africa summarised the shift in

manner, women thinking about women’s contribution to business: ‘Women are really
serious about their roles now. […Men] realize they cannot be without

executives are often us. They realize we push until the [end] and leave no stone unturned.’

Role Association creates several problems for women. The first is

unheard in the business itself. Women are often seen as ‘Chief Emotional
Officer,’ as ‘Chief Trust Officer,’ or even as ‘mother to the workers.’ One
consequence is that women are often placed in invidious positions
when criticising their colleagues and employees, or simply making a major decision. A recent
study by Middlebury College shows that workers are 70 per cent more critical of negative
feedback from female supervisors as compared to male supervisors. In other words, it is more
difficult for women to react in ways that other firm members accept.

Another example is negotiation behaviour. When stating their objectives in a friendly manner,
women executives often remain unheard. However, when emphasizing their demands in a
more direct way, women open themselves up to different kinds of criticism. One documented
exchange between a male executive criticised by a female executive is instructive:

When negotiating you need to know how to fight without ‘touching’ the other one.
You emotionally bruised and hurt me.

From the female executive’s perspective, all prior attempts to criticise without ‘emotionally
bruising’ her colleague had gone unnoticed.

Gender Parity in Africa

A new report by the McKinsey Global Institute, ‘The Power of Parity – Advancing women’s equality in
Africa’ (2019), suggests that Africa is improving when it comes to the inclusion of women in key sectors
of the formal economy. This is especially true at board level. In Africa, one in four board members are
female. That’s better than second-placed Europe at 23 per cent and well ahead of global laggard Latin
America at 7 per cent. The world average for female representation on boards is 17 per cent. That said,
the report warns that this uptick is driven by progress in only a handful of African nations. And women
disproportionately occupy leadership roles in human resources and legal departments, jobs that are
seen as less likely to lead to the position of chief executive officer.

8 Women in African family businesses

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In a similar vein, an African business woman cited in the 2016 McKinsely study observed:
‘When women step up to volunteer for big roles, they [men] say: You’re aggressive.’ Those
difficulties in professional interaction go back to deeply ingrained assumptions of how women
are expected to behave: warmly, compassionately, and fully conscious of others’ (rather than
one’s own) needs. It is no wonder that such role expectations clash with the daily behaviour of
female family firm leaders. This clash is amplified when the female boss has been known by the
employees for decades, as is often the case in family businesses.

The employees have known me since I’ve been a toddler, accompanying my mother to work.
I’ve been driving on the grounds of the company with my bobby car. It’s been difficult to
convince them that the blond-haired young girl has turned into their boss now.

Those challenges make it difficult for female successors to fight for and defend their decision-
making at work.

Other role conflicts complicate the establishment of female managers. One of the most
prevalent factors preventing female successors from taking on responsible roles in their
family businesses are tasks at home, notably child-rearing. While some business women can
avail themselves of scores of assistants for ‘domestic’ matters, their ‘professional’ time is
nevertheless widely perceived to be more constrained by them, adding to the privileging of
sons over daughters in succession plans.

Other factors
In business, women have not been well served by rigid belief systems. In North Africa and
other parts of the continent which are predominantly Muslim, the constraints on women’s
participation in business are well known. But the context is important. Businesses in Egypt are
male-dominated, but this is less so in Morocco, despite both populations being largely Muslim.
In Morocco, perhaps in part due to the influential role women have played in its politics, there
is much less negative bias against women in the workplace.

Religious beliefs are an important guide, but so too are a society’s underlying values and how
they become manifest in the economy. Where religion is broadly restricted to the private
sphere and equality is accepted in the public life of a business, it seems likely that higher levels
of female managerial involvement in family firms will be present.

It almost goes without saying that polygamous relationships (whether

sanctioned by religion or culture) have the effect of marginalising From the female
women as potential successors in prospering family businesses and
complicate succession processes. Patrilineal rules such as in Kenya executive’s perspective,
and Uganda, where property rights remain in the hands of the men’s
family, further discriminate against women becoming strong owner- all prior attempts
managers of their firms. To state the obvious, providing women with
equal rights in their decision-making, and an acknowledgement to criticise without
of women’s equal competence, is an important driver of female
participation in family firms’ leadership teams. ‘emotionally bruising’
Conflicts with family members, such as siblings, often prevent
women from taking on responsibility in the family businesses. In the
her colleague had
case of conflict with brothers, women might decide not to ‘run for
succession’ in order to maintain family harmony. A 2010 study on
gone unnoticed
succession in Sub-Saharan countries showed how, in larger family
firms, one child (invariably, a boy) was selected as successor and educated accordingly (but
not the child’s sibling) in order to avoid competition and achieve harmony – an approach that
differs fundamentally from that of developed, often more individualistic, countries where

Women in African family businesses 9

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family business owner-managers strive to identify the most talented and most committed child
amongst various potential successors. In traditional societies, mothers tend not to be allies
of daughters in climbing the ladder of family businesses. This may be due to jealousy or even
preserving one’s identity, as the principal caregiver ‘in the background’.
Additionally, successions often lead to a re-interpretation of the father-
In many countries, daughter relationship – which might, in turn, also affect the spousal
relationship of father and mother.
the networks that matter A final factor that complicates women’s success in family business

in business are either is networking, an important driver of managerial success. Countries

in Africa, as elsewhere, are characterised by networks of strong ties

male-dominated or that might be helpful in business settings. Yet in many countries,

the networks that matter in business are either male-dominated or

male-only indeed male-only. This is evident in professional organisations such as

service clubs. Even where there is no official separation, women tend
to self-select into female networks and vice versa.

In thinking about the sources of the two general (perceptual) handicaps for women in business
– biological and social – there is a large body of research including large-scale cross-cultural
studies, which suggests that the latter is the most pervasive. Most differences between men
and women are introduced through education, through how parents raise their children,
and through interaction with peers of the same and other gender.

How to change the world for a more female

future? Best practices for societies and firms
While women still play a secondary role in firm ownership and management as compared to
their male counterparts, the past two decades have witnessed some notable shifts. One recent
study revealed that in the West the ratio of female family firm leaders increased by 14 per cent
in the years from 2002 to 2007. Today at least one-third of family firm decision-makers consider
a female CEO successor (see Figure 1: Female family CEOs).

In North America and Europe, the up-tick in female leadership is generally attributed to greater
gender equality and a redefined sense of justice at the family level. Indeed, results from a
recent Ernst & Young study with a focus on family businesses show that more family firms in
developed (60 per cent) as compared to emerging economies (49 per cent) have at least one
woman on the board (see Figure 2: Women’s board participation). In a similar vein, this survey
study shows that while family firms in developed countries have, on average, 5.5 women in
their top management team, the average for emerging economies is 3.5 women per family firm
top management team.

What can African countries learn from those examples?

What society can do

In Africa, there is still a huge variance of female managers in firms, as data from the World Bank
shows, with Sudan (at the low end) having less than 4 per cent of firms with female managers
and Lesotho (at the high end) having more than a third of firms with female managers.

Moreover, while the ‘Women Economic Opportunity’ Index – defined as ‘a set of laws,
regulations, practices, customs and attitudes that allow women to participate in the workforce
under conditions roughly equal to those of men, whether as wage-earning employees or as
owners of a business’ (on a scale from 0 to 100 with 100 showing best economic opportunities

10 Women in African family businesses

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Figure 1: Female family CEOs in Europe/North America

● 1994 (2%)
Female ● 2005 (9.5%)
family CEOs ● Serious consideration for
next succession according
% of firms with a to EY* study (30%)
female CEO

* The work is part of a larger

research project financed
by EMAKUNDE - Basque
Institute for Women and

Figure 2: Women’s board participation

Women’s Board
Participation ● Developed economies
% of firms with at ● Emerging market
least one woman economies
on their board of

for women) – is very low for some African countries such as Sudan (19.23), in other countries
such as South Africa (65.35) it achieves levels comparable to some European countries
(e.g., Greece: 68.73).

An analysis of a large set of Swedish media articles on female family business owner-managers
in the early 2000s shows that media contributes substantially to shaping our expectations of
how women should act. Although the study found that the number of articles on female family-
firm leaders was rising, in contrast to male family-firm managers, many of the articles discussed
both the professional role of the women as well as their private role. What is the consequence
of such reporting? Firstly, if positive, it can provide role models for talented young women,
illustrating best practices of combining multiple roles. On the negative side, an over-emphasis
on problems can also deter young women from seeking to combine motherhood and family
firm manager, and thus negate their potential as future female leaders in the eyes of decision-

Legislation also is an important driver of gender equality. Legal changes in Lesotho (2005)
and South Africa (2008, Gender Policy Framework) constitute important steps against
discrimination. Best practices worldwide suggest that women-friendly sites, career-aligned
training, and fair procurement processes can help women become more successful in their
business lives. In India, due to a recent change in laws, women now have the right to recourse
to the courts in case they feel unfairly treated in the succession process.

Women in African family businesses 11

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In several highly developed countries, the introduction of quotas, though hotly contested,
has increased media attention on the topic of gender equality and, ultimately, led to a slight
increase in female participation in decision-making and supervising positions. Germany has
introduced a mandatory quota of female board members for firms exceeding a certain size and
proposed a quota of at least 30 per cent female participation for specific firms. While initially
much criticised, the quotas have led to greater diversity on German boards and, equally
important, spurred debates on how women could be better supported and promoted. Italy,
Belgium, and the Netherlands also implemented 30 per cent quotas whereas Norway, Spain,
and France decided on a quota of at least 40 per cent female board members. Research has
shown that at a tipping point of roughly 30–40 per cent minority (e.g., female) participation,
the atmosphere in the group starts to change from male-dominated to more inclusive,
also allowing minority members to successfully air their viewpoints.

Female owner-managers of family businesses generally have less access to financing than
their male counterparts, inhibiting their prospects for growth. Any attempt to promote greater
female leadership must place more equal financing at its heart.

Likewise, role modelling and mentoring plays an important role. In their absence, young female
talent often don’t foresee a leadership position in their futures. A study on female Sudanese
entrepreneurs revealed the impact of ‘family moral support’ in communicating positive
messages about women acting as (top) managers. Famously, Scandinavian countries have been
at the forefront of gender equality in professional careers by installing generous rules with
regard to parental leave which also motivate fathers to contribute to childcare tasks.

Indian courts granting women equal rights to inherit family business

The Hindu Succession (Amendment) Act, 2005 in India has seen a landmark decision being made to
set women in Indian families on an equal footing as their male counterparts. The amendment of the
Act was delivered through a judgement by Justice Sikri and Justice Ashok Bhushan in the matter of
Danamma v. Amar, 2018.
The Supreme Court of India upheld the right of a daughter to be entitled to equal share as a son
in ancestral property. The rights acquired by the daughter also include authority to manage family
property, rituals and other important affairs of the family. These include but are not limited to the
purchases and sale of family assets and the mutation of family-owned property.
Women in India now are not only beneficiaries of equal rights but, also have to influence decisions
concerning the property. This amendment has given the daughters in family-owned businesses
decision-making powers for the first time. This has had an impact on succession issues and the role
and voice that it gives women in Indian families.
The marriage of a daughter makes no difference to their inheritance position according to a Hindu
Undivided Family (HUF) law. Married women do not receive this status in their husband’s families
which is why it is important that they retain it as it is a source of financial security for themselves.
Further to this, women in India are now recognised as legitimate in their families’ assets. Men and
women in Indian families now have the same rights and liabilities and this is applicable in all property
disputes. This means that the rights of Indian women to inheritance in their family’s business has now
been recognised as a birth right. Thus giving daughters in Indian families’ equal status, in theory, as
that given to sons in matters related to succession.
Though there is no retrospective application of the Hindu Succession Amendment Act, 2005, the
Indian Supreme Court has made it clear that there should be no misinterpretation by other courts.
This decision has set a precedent that will uphold equality between men and women in Indian family
businesses – in law, at least!

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Figure 3: Female top managers 2017

Women in top management

WORLD 18.56
Lesotho 36,2
Madagascar 28,2
Namibia 27,4
Eswatini (Swaziland) 27,4
Benin 25,9
Zambia 23,8
Cameroon 22,9
Liberia 20,4
Rwanda 19,7
Congo 17,2
Cape Verde 16,7
Botswana 16,5
Burundi 16,3
Zimbabwe 16,3
Sierra Leone 15,9
Sub-Saharan Africa (IDA & IBRD) 15,78
Sub-Saharan Africa (excluding high income) 15,78
Sub-Saharan Africa 15,78
Uganda 15,4
Ghana 14,9
Côte d’Ivoire 14,3
Djibouti 14,2
Malawi 14,2
Senegal 14,1
Tanzania 14
Nigeria 13,9
Angola 13,5
Kenya 13,4
Central African Republic 12,1
Mali 11,6
Gabon 11,5
Togo 11,4
Burkina Faso 11,3
Democratic Republic of Congo 10,8
Niger 10,6
South Sudan 9,5
Tunisia 8,5
Eritrea 7,6
Chad 6,8
Guinea 5,8
Middle East & North Africa 5,39
Middle East & North Africa (IDA & IBRD) 5,33
Egypt 4,9
Middle East & North Africa (excluding high income) 4,87
Ethiopia 4,5
Mauritania 4,5
Morocco 4,3
Sudan 3,4

0 5 10 15 20 25 30 35 40
% of females in top management

Source: World Bank

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What firms can do

On the firm level, research shows negative reinforcement from parents and siblings encourage
many women to not consider themselves as potential successors of their family businesses.
When asked at an early age, daughters are generally more reticent than sons about entering
the family business. If they express a willingness, typically they restrict their aims to lower levels
of entry and for a set period, rather than a career. Early communication might help daughters
acculturate themselves to the idea of being a successor.

An increasing use of digital tools and acceptance of alternative working styles can encourage
greater female leadership in family firms. These measures include but are not restricted to:

0 Part-time leadership/sharing leadership positions

0 Home office
0 Flexible working hours
0 Video communications

On the latter, an expert on diversity of supervisory boards, recently talked about a female
executive moving from Sweden to Australia. The woman kept her position, and instead of
herself a robot, showing her face via video, participated in the meetings. Enhanced digital
measures might help women combine their multiple roles.

A successful transition in family firms requires of the new leader both motivation and
competence. A recent study of medium-sized German family firms shows that women typically
become successors either if they do not have any (older) brothers or if the succession occurs
unexpectedly (e.g., due to sudden death of the patriarch). If successors are female, the
study found that they often possess higher levels of human capital – i.e., higher education,
more qualifications and more work experience than typical male successors. Higher levels of
human capital might help female successors gain the necessary legitimacy of stakeholders. As
such, family business owner-managers should pay special attention to the education of their
daughters. This is especially important for the African context, as studies in the Sub-Saharan
context show that daughters, on average, are less educated than sons.

Gaining legitimacy amongst stakeholders – e.g., long-term employees, business partners,

or suppliers – is challenging under any circumstances, but is particularly so for female
successors. How ‘legitimacy’ might be fostered in the case of female successors is not
something to be considered at the moment of transition but rather early on. In a case of
a recent successful German succession, Lena Schaumann, the latest successor of Möbel
Schaumann (a fourth generation family business in the furniture area), successfully started,
led, and grew her own start-up called Lumizil before entering the business of her father as a
successor. This temporary role as start-up entrepreneur helped her to shift the stakeholders’
perspective of her being the boss’s daughter to her being a well-educated and successful boss.
Other approaches to gain legitimacy include outside experience as a manager or successfully
passing an assessment test.

Another potential, and frequently executed, solution is to install a leadership team as opposed
to a single leader at the top of the family business. While this solution is good for diversity,
it also carries an important threat: In many male-female leadership couples, the women –
intentionally or otherwise – move towards taking on less important and less powerful roles.
Hence, such joint leadership solutions need to be well prepared with a clear separation of
leadership responsibilities.

In some cases, the intended leadership transfer to a female successor might also require a
reinterpretation of cultural norms. When we think about norms, we accept that they will
influence our daily lives. But we often forget that our lived practices can also shape the norms

14 Women in African family businesses

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Woman granted equal share of inheritance in Egypt

Huda Nasrallah is an Egyptian woman and human rights lawyer who recently took legal action to
receive the same inheritance as her brothers from their late father’s estate.
Nasrallah used the tenets of her religion, Coptic Christianity, to successfully confront one of the core
precepts of Islamic Sharia Law, which historically has been the default legal ground in Egypt regardless
of one’s faith. After two courts had ruled against her, a higher court eventually granted her relief. In
doing so, an historic precedent was set for Egyptians. The decision-making powers that it gives women
can potentially change family power dynamics and how they manage their assets.
On close scrutiny, however, the court’s decision could run up against stiff challenges within Egyptian
society. The plaintiff in this case had the support of her brothers in her efforts to gain an equal share
of the inheritance. In cases where the beneficiaries do not support each other, the precedent set
by this case may not have enough influence. It will remain the responsibility of law-makers and, in
this case religious bodies, to amend laws that dictate unequal treatment based on one’s gender. This
case highlighted that there is a potential for laws to adapt and treat beneficiaries equally, rather than
discriminate based on gender or religion.
Source: BBC News, 25 November 2019

and thereby mould and, over time, change them. For instance, the experience of one major
family firm in North Africa (see box overleaf) illustrates how the establishment of women-only
departments might help female successors to fulfil their role as family firm owner-managers
while, at the same time, not violating any cultural or religious norms.

But even if firm members have confidence in the new female boss, there might still be
resistance by other family members, such as male siblings who have long assumed that
they would become the undisputed successors of the family business. This is where good
governance in a family firm context becomes essential. Often this is manifest in a family
constitution or charter, which details the rules of the business family. Typically it comprises
answers to the key questions that are likely to arise:

0 Who can become a successor of the family business?

0 How is a successor selected?
0 How will a family deal with conflicts?

In times of crisis, such questions are often highly contested, which is why they are best settled
on paper beforehand in periods of relative tranquility.

Business-owning families might agree that successors require a certain university degree as
well as certain work experience to enter the family business at the top level. One successful,
well-known third-generation Pakistani firm is more specific: an MBA, plus three years working
for a company outside the family business. Charters might also stipulate that external
evaluators must be brought in to help in the assessment of the best qualified (family) successor.
Formalised processes might not only add transparency and help female successors by providing
them with useful information, they might also help to de-bias the decision-making process and
provide equal chances to both male and female succession candidates.

A word of caution though: best practice transferred from one part of the world doesn’t always
make best practice in another. Preliminary study findings from South America show that formal
governance practices are less impactful than in highly advanced economies. As ever, context is
all-important. Good solutions are those that are effectively tailored to local realities and, above
all, work.

Women in African family businesses 15

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Maintaining a high ratio of female managers

The CEO of a large family business group in North Africa summarised how his firm has successfully
maintained a high ratio of female managers (above 50 per cent). First, the firm’s record of success with
female managers reduced any biases in recruitment. According to this CEO, female managers turned
out to be ‘more loyal, more reliable, and more long-term oriented’ and, as a consequence, more
competent for the job. When asked how his firm would deal with work-life and role issues of female
managers, he presented a pragmatic solution: in cases of female managers in larger firms, there should
be processes in action so that they can be easily replaced. In the case of smaller teams – such as at
the holding level – he started to hire consultants from the top three consulting businesses as interim
consultants – with 2–3 months overlap before and after (where required) maternity leave. While
acknowledging that this policy is not cost-free, he observes that, typically, career-oriented women are
‘out of action’ for no more than one or two years of their professional lives, which is a price worth
paying given female managers’ long-term commitment to the family business. Walking the talk, the
younger sister of the (male) CEO interviewed by the author is also involved in the family business and
holds equal rights.
Interview with author, November 2019

Will women play an important role in the future of African family businesses? Despite the
current challenges, there is ample reason to believe that they will, especially if global trends are
a reliable guide. The shifts in the political world evident in countries like Rwanda can stir similar
progress in the business world.

While the number of female managers in family firms worldwide is still low generally, figures
are often higher in family firms compared to others, according to a recent Ernst & Young study
on gender in top management of large family and non-family firms worldwide (see Figure 4:
Women in Top Management Teams).

Figure 4: Women in Top Management Teams

Women in
large firms’ Top ● Family firms
Management Teams ● All firms
% of females on TMT

Source: Ernst &Young

Family Firms can drive not only firm-level but societal change, too.

No one should underestimate how much work there is still to do. A change in mindset needs
to occur across all levels – politicians, educators, firm stakeholders, employees, current firm
decision-makers, and women themselves. As with the proven advantages of diversity in
leadership boards worldwide, family firms in Africa have much to gain by addressing the historic
exclusion of women, not least in leadership succession.

16 Women in African family businesses

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Works consulted for this study and suggested further reading

Ahrens, J.P., Landmann, A. and Woywode, M., 2015. Gender preferences in the CEO successions
of family firms: Family characteristics and human capital of the successor. Journal of Family
Business Strategy, 6(2), pp. 86–103.

Bjursell, C. and Bäckvall, L., 2011. Family business women in media discourse: the business role
and the mother role. Journal of Family Business Management, 1(2), pp. 154–173.

Gupta, V., Levenburg, N., Moore, L., Motwani, J. and Schwarz, T.V., 2010. Family business in sub-
Saharan Africa versus the Middle East. Journal of African Business, 11(2), pp. 146–162.

Lerner, M. and Malach-Pines, A., 2011. Gender and culture in family business: A ten-nation
study. International Journal of Cross Cultural Management, 11(2), pp. 113–131.

Martinez, Jimenez, R., 2009. Research on women in family firms: Current status and future
directions. Family Business Review, 22(1), pp. 53–64.

Streuli, S.K., 2018. The role of distributive justice for family firm governance and succession
(Doctoral dissertation, Universität St. Gallen).

Welsh, D.H., 2016. Women-owned family businesses in Africa: Entrepreneurs changing the face
of progress. In Family Businesses in Sub-Saharan Africa (pp. 155–173). Palgrave Macmillan, New

Welsh, D.H., Memili, E., Kaciak, E. and Ahmed, S., 2013. Sudanese women entrepreneurs.
Journal of Developmental Entrepreneurship, 18(02).





Women in African family businesses 17

FORUM building ties, deepening knowledge, driving success

Mary Oppenheimer Daughters family office (MODO) was established in 2016. MODO is responsible for
managing the commercial and philanthropic activities of Mary Slack (née Oppenheimer), daughter of the
late South African businessman and philanthropist Harry Oppenheimer and grand-daughter of Sir Ernest
Oppenheimer, and her four daughters. MODO’s interests and outlook are global but it has deep roots in Africa,
with four generations of investing experience on the continent.

The Family Forum was established in 2019. A pan-African initiative by Mary Oppenheimer Daughters,
the Family Forum draws on a long history of supporting and investing in family-owned businesses across
the continent. The mission of the Family Forum is to strengthen the contribution of entrepreneurial families to Africa’s
development and, through building ties and deepening knowledge of the challenges faced by family-owned
businesses, to help drive the success of forum members.

For more information, email familyforum@modaughters.com