The Incredible Invisible Woman

By Kathy J. Marshack, Ph.D., P.S.

Women in business, one of the fastest growing segments of the self-employed, and yet we know very little about them. Half of America’s workers are women. More and more women are entering the workplace and more and more women are entering at the business and professional level than ever before.

Yet when Juanita Ohanian applied for a business loan at the First Women’s National Bank in Rockville Maryland, she was denied the loan unless she had her husband’s signature. Ohanian had operated her commercial offset printing and photocopying business for 12 years. The business was financially secure and she was earning twice her husband’s salary!

In spite of their numbers in the work place, women such as Ohanian are not always taken seriously when it comes to running a business. I don’t think that lenders are discriminating because of gender necessarily. It’s probably more because they don’t know how to relate to women business onwers. Women have different values and these values are showing up in how women design their businesses.

Women business owners, for example, often work with their husbands. They are more likely than men to accommodate their work schedules around family needs. For example, Hannah Anderson a clothing retailer in Portland, has on site day care and flexi-time for it’s workers. There are also many women business owners working from their homes as telecommuters.

My daughters have watched their mother develop her business from home. When they were babies, they slept in the bassinet next to my desk. Occasionally I would even take one them to business meetings, rocking her in her baby carrier, as I took notes.

When my daughter Bianca was about 5, I heard her call out to me as she passed me in the kitchen, “Bye, Bye Mommy; I’m going to a meeting.” She was dressed in an apron and high heels (my castoffs), pushing her doll carriage with one hand and carrying a briefcase in the other. (Actually the briefcase was a blue plastic crayola marker case but she has quite an imagination.)

This blending of family and work roles is commonly seen in couple-owned and family-owned enterprises. Yet women who attempt to blend both roles must fight invisibility. For example, I lost a contract to provide certain psychological services because my office is at home. I was told that home offices are not professional enough. However, I always thought I was clever to find a way to be with my family and still develop my career interests. Obviously this is not a value shared by the contractor.

Sometimes women reinforce this invisibility themselves. In an effort to maintain her role as wife and her role as business owner a woman may feel she has to take a “backseat” to her husband. For example, I asked a co-entrepreneurial couple to tell me their official business titles. Although the wife had started the business five years before her husband joined her, she told me she was a “sales associate,” while her husband said he was “vice president.”

Other copreneurial wives tell me that they share ownership of the business equally with their husbands, yet they rarely list their title as “owner” or “president.” Usually they are listed as “secretary” or “treasurer.” Their husbands on the other hand, frequently list themselves as “co-owner.” So it appears that the need to hold back is coming from the wives, not the husbands.

Every so often I get a call from a copreneurial wife asking for help with her marriage. She and her husband are struggling with balancing their personal relationship and their business partnership. Whether or not the wife was the business founder, she is usually the one with the most trouble accepting the power struggle with her husband. Men seem more comfortable with power negotiations and are at a loss as to why their wives are distressed.

Simply the wife has to learn to be assertive with her husband. She must draw boundaries around her turf. This is something that men do all of the time, but women may feel that they are being too “bossy.” Women need to realize that most of the time their husbands are not offended by clear, assertive, decisive actions. In fact the chief complaint I hear from copreneurial husbands is that their wive’s don’t speak up! So he doesn’t know what she wants, nor how to help her get it.

If women business owners are to be more visible, they need to be bold and speak up. They need to educate lenders and others about the values of blending family and work life. They need to teach their daughters how to be true to her feminine spirit and yet develop her creative side through career, professional and business.

Last year there was a great deal of controversy about the first national “Take Your Daughter to Work Day.” Some said that sons should have equal time. While it is valid that a son should have the opportunity to learn about his mother’s and father’s careers, daughters need an extra helping hand right now.

To bust the myth of invisible working women, business owners and others, girls need to see women at work. They need to be educated about how to successfully balance the demands of family life and work life. Women business owners are in a wonderful position to do just that.

Daughters as heirs or caretakers of the king

By Kathy J. Marshack, Ph.D., P.S.

“A son is a son ‘Till he takes him a wife; But a daughter’s a daughter The rest of her life.”

My mother was fond of telling me this little aphorism when I was a girl. Perhaps it was because she had two daughters and no sons. Or perhaps it is because she was the only daughter in a family of sons. Whether she was trying to teach me the lesson, or to merely advise me of a fact, I have noticed the truth in this saying more often than not. The value of relationships does seem to be more important for women than for men. Not that men do not enjoy loving relationships, but that women tend to define themselves more in terms of their relationships. Women and girls are more willing than men and boys to put their needs aside to maintain a relationship. Within a family firm for example, it is often the wife who does not take a formal salary. She is equally likely to forgo a formal title in the corporation, although she is just as hardworking an asset to the business as her husband. Likewise with daughters. Daughters in family firms often see their roles as supportive of the family. They are not as driven to be leaders as are their brothers. This does not mean they do not want recognition. Rather their first priority is to ensure the success of the loving relationships. After all, these relationships came before the business. They are the driving force behind the business; the reason it came into being. The research indicates that family owned firms were started by their founders primarily as a way to support the family. The women in family firms still recognize this intent long after the men have turned their attention to developing a thriving enterprise.But this concern for family first often gets in the way of founders considering their daughters as successors. Although their daughters may be hardworking, college educated, committed to the family enterprise and have many other talents, founders most often groom their sons to succeed them in the leadership of the business. The research shows that even founders who have no sons overlook the possibility of a daughter taking over the business. Considering the importance women place on nurturing the family, and considering that a successful family firm requires a cohesive and committed family, daughters may be the most likely choice to succeed the founder of a family firm. In her study of 18 family firms, Collette Dumas identified the roles that daughters typically play in family firms. Dumas chose only those family firms where the daughters held management positions.She also identified the qualities that make for a successful transition of leadership from fathers to daughters in family firms.

The majority of fathers and daughters that Dumas interviewed expressed great difficulty in managing the ambiguity in defining the daughter’s roles in the family and in the family business.The roles assigned by both fathers and daughters ranged from “Daddy’s little girl,” which emphasizes a fragile, defenseless, dependent position, to that of a tough and independent manager in the business. While the daughters studied were capable and assumed several roles in the family business, their primary role with their fathers (and which was learned at an early age) was that of defenseless dependent. As one daughter put it, “Even though I’ve been working here a long time, I still have to kiss him every morning. Otherwise he’ll be hurt. I don’t think he’s made the transition to seeing me as an adult. I’m still his little girl.” While sons may also stay boys in their fathers eyes, at least sons come into the family business with the expectation that someday they will take over. Daughters rarely have this illusion. Therefore, they may remain Daddy’s little girl indefinitely. This position leads many daughters in family firms to struggle with a sense of identity. Many daughters in family firms, as well as their mothers, work side by side with their brothers, yet their names are not on the organizational chart. All of the fathers Dumas interviewed reported that they had never considered their daughters as potential successors in the business before their daughters came to work for them. And all the fathers reported that long periods of time went by after their daughters came to work for them before they considered the idea. Dumas refers to this phenomenon as the “invisible successor.” Only when a crisis emerged where the daughter was needed to help out Dad, did either party consider her potential as a successor. Unlike sons, who come to work for the family business to further their career and eventual ownership, daughters come into the family business out of dedication to Dad and the family. As a result of struggling with these issues (role ambiguity, invisibility and identity), daughters in family firms develop one of three styles according to Dumas: “Caring for the Father,” “Taker of the Gold,” or “Caretaker of the King’s Gold.”In the first style, “Caring for the Father,” the daughter may feel a lack of purpose and direction. She has not developed a clear and strong identity. Such people often attach themselves to strong leaders or father figures and become dependent on them in an attempt to feel “alive.” In the family firm these daughters are largely oriented toward pleasing the father and caring for his comfort and wishes. His needs come before the daughter’s. While there is nothing unhealthy about caring for another person, to do so exclusively not only robs the daughter of her identity, but may harm the firm.

If the daughter’s behaviors are oriented toward caring for her father to the exclusion of actions that would be beneficial to the organization’s effectiveness and survival, she will not be prepared to take over the CEO’s role when she succeeds him. In the second style, “Taker of the Gold,” the daughter has taken the opposite extreme by developing a rigid identity or sense of self. She works hard to achieve and even overachieve, but she thinks only of herself. In the case of daughters trying to become independent of fathers, the takers-of-the-gold become more interested in taking charge of the business assets than in responding empathetically to the father or recognizing his accomplishments. While these daughters are strong and quite capable, they operate independently and thus do not take advantage of the resources available to them to make informed decisions. These daughters have behaviors that are rebellious and disrespectful of the business’s norms. In the long run this style produces a great deal of conflict between father and daughter and potential distress for the business. The third style, “Caretaker of the King’s Gold,” represents a mid-point between the first two styles where the structure of the identity is harmonious and stable and at the same time less rigid and dramatic. This daughter suffers less from a sense of inner emptiness and is less inclined to continuously prove her existence to others. In other words, this healthy sense of identity allows the daughter in a family firm to simultaneously take charge and take care of the “king’s gold” (the business), “the king” (the father), and herself. This style may seem to cast the daughter back into the dependent role of “Daddy’s Little Girl.” However, daughters who represent the style of “Caretaker of the King’s Gold,” have found their identity through interdependence with their fathers. While sons cannot feel like men until they break away from Dad, daughters mature through affiliation and interconnectedness. Fathers with this type of daughter find that they can gradually phase out of the business. Their daughter is capable of running the business with out them, but she also values working with her father for as long as he is capable. Murray Bowen, a family systems psychiatrist has suggested that interdependence is one sign of a healthy family. Certainly this is no less true for a family firm. Fathers and daughters who are able to be respectful of each other, nurture each other’s developmental needs and both creatively pursue the business are in a better position to make a healthy transition from father to daughter when the time comes for the succession of leadership.

If you have a loved one on the Spectrum, please check our private MeetUp group. We have members from around the world meeting online in intimate video conferences guided by Dr. Kathy Marshack.
Learn More >
Join my Meetup Group