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08 Mar 2013

The glass ceiling of tradition

Anita Fung

by Anita Fung

Chief Executive Officer, HSBC Hong Kong

Women at work in Singapore

Many female members of Asia’s business dynasties are torn between family duty and career

Asia’s success has been largely driven by one of the oldest ownership structures in the world – the family firm, which has traditionally been founded and controlled by men.

This has left many female members of Asia’s business dynasties torn between family duty and career.

In Women in Asian Family Enterprises: Understanding the past – Looking to the future, a new report for HSBC Private Bank, Lansberg, Gersick & Associates examines the pressures on a new generation of women working for their family companies in Asia and suggests that resolving conflict could have many benefits.

The future of women in family businesses in Asia is far from a choice between tradition and modernity

Asian patriarchs may be traditional, but that does not mean keeping their daughters in ignorance. Many women are proud graduates of the world’s most prestigious universities and business schools, and have gone on to demanding executive positions at multinationals.

After education women often return to Asia and the family company, typically to a corporate environment that favours their male siblings and where they are expected to juggle the roles of daughter, wife and mother with those of corporate trouble-shooter for their fathers.

“I basically oscillate between being a ‘CCC’ (Chairman’s Chief Confidante) or a ‘CCJ’ (Corporate Chief Janitor) depending on his mood that day,” one of the report’s interviewees says of her father.

The research suggests that family is still the core focus for women. They value the closeness, support and advice of an extended group, and finding a harmonious position within it remains a priority.

But many young women, particularly those who have been educated or have worked in the West, feel limited by a glass ceiling of tradition. They feel their contribution goes unrecognised, often because traditionally family businesses are split and given to male heirs. It would appear women have to sacrifice either personal fulfilment or family harmony.

This does not have to be the case and boosting the role of women in the family business can also help with the intergenerational transfer of wealth, another challenge facing businesses in Asia.

Many of Asia’s patriarchs are coming to the conclusion that narrow traditions are stifling women’s personal and professional development and also pose a significant challenge to the sustainability of the family enterprise. We have found that patriarchs are turning to trusts, holding companies, and family offices as mechanisms to transfer assets to the next generation. These structures make it easier to include the female members of the family in the asset transfer.

Trusts need trustees, holding companies need directors and family offices need CEOs. Many women already play a role in managing the family’s existing financial and property assets, making it a natural progression to move to a more formal position.

The future of women in family businesses in Asia is far from a choice between tradition and modernity. We believe the new structures increasingly being adopted by family elders make financial sense and also represent a golden opportunity to empower wives, sisters and daughters to reach their full potential.

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