Women get a better deal at Asian family firms, but not by much

Yurkio Nakao | Bloomberg | Getty Images

More top-level roles go to women working at Asian family firms - even if they aren't relatives - than in non-family ones. But the numbers are still pretty dismal.

Within Singapore, for example, there are twice as many women on the boards of family firms, compared with non-family firms, according to data from researchers at National University of Singapore's (NUS) business school.

"The talent pool in the families is limited, and of course there are sons and daughters in equal measure. This gives the female family members the opportunity to become leaders in the family firm," Marleen Dieleman, an associate professor at NUS, told CNBC.

She noted that only around 44 percent of the women in executive roles in family firms are, in fact, members of the owning family.

"We often note that once you have one woman there, it's like a bridge to having more," she said. "If they're already used to working with gender-diverse teams, it's not such a big step to hire another female director."

Achieving gender diversity has benefits beyond simply providing equal opportunities: Multiple studies have found that companies that have more women in the top spots are more profitable than those that don't.

But before handing out any awards to family firms, the data also show that the overall number of women in executive roles is low.

In Singapore's family firms, which make up more than 60 percent of companies listed on the city-state's stock exchange, around 10 percent of directorships were held by women in 2015. Low, but still well above the non-family firms' around 7.9 percent.

But the persistence among family firms to look to the eldest male heir to fill the role of the father -- or primogeniture -- means daughters are clearly getting left out of family firms' management in Asia, Dieleman says. Otherwise, 50 percent of the roles would be going to women.

"If they are family members, they find it a little bit harder to get accepted as a leader by their parents," she said. "Even though this is an issue for male and female alike, it's perhaps even more so for the female heirs."

In China, however, the country's demographic changes are pushing more women to the forefront. After more than 30 years of China's now-repealed one-child policy, more women are being tapped to take over family businesses, simply because there is no son or nephew to displace them.

For example, Lin Wang says there never was any question she would take over her family's company, chemical product-maker Wylton.

"I'm the only child," she said via email. "Gender inequality isn't that bad in China at all."

But she noted that she faces some difficulties in the male-dominated industry, especially as she aims to target the Middle East market.

"I'm usually perceived as the inexperienced woman," the 28-year-old said, adding that she sometimes tried to make herself look older at business meetings.

"When [you are] female, you are the underdog. People expect less from you. In turn, that gives you the advantage and the chance to surprise people with what you know and leave an impression," she says.

While the numbers of women in executive roles are fairly few and far between, women in Asia's family firms sometimes wield quite a bit of power, regardless of whether they have the job title.

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"Some of them may operate in the background, especially in the Chinese firms. You will often find that, for example, the wife of the founder may be sitting on the cash, which is hugely powerful position," Dieleman notes.

She adds that in the case of family feuds over the business, it's often the women who step up to settle disputes. For example, in India, the Ambani family feud over control of Reliance Group between one of the country's richest men, Mukesh Ambani, and his brother, Anil, was settled by their mother, who negotiated a deal to break up the company. That very public feud ran from the time of their father's death in 2002 through 2005.

More women could be slated to take over Europe's family firms, as well.

Morten Bennedsen, an academic director at the Insead family business group, noted that daughters appear to have a harder time "running away" from family businesses than sons.

"Daughters communicate better with the parents. It becomes a more smooth transition," he says, adding that women also now tend to get more education than men and tend to be more competitive now. That leads parents to be more willing to think equally when it comes to succession planning, he says.

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