Sex and Gender in Family Business Succession Research: A Review and Forward Agenda From a Social Construction Perspective


(Authors: Teresa Nelson and Christina Constaninidis)

Research Applied précis prepared by Maya Prabhu, Coutts Institute

As practitioners we encounter gender-related issues regularly as we help business families plan for the future ownership and leadership of their enterprises. As you would expect, I have encountered a range of approaches adopted by families: from practices of male primogeniture (whether desired or merited by the potential candidate) to women leading their businesses and their family councils; from women being full participants in succession planning to not being present at all. The roles played by women and men in work and families has evolved and changed over the past few decades as social attitudes to gender roles have changed as I have highlighted in the following article:

Not Studied Enough: Gender in Family Business Succession Literature

Yet, the authors of this excellent article in FBR find from their analysis that family business succession literature over the past 21 years has engaged with gender as a concept in a limited way. And where it has been, they have identified some common themes:

  1. The literature tends to regard gender as a ‘stable and objective’ condition of women – i.e. one that affects women particularly regarding their relative position to men in terms of hierarchy, levels of responsibility given, and participation in decision making. The gendering of men is not explored: particularly the impact on the eldest male who is expected to assume positions of responsibility and power, and whether he finds find this role acceptable or comfortable.
  2. It notes a rising acceptance of women in business positions and an awareness that men being in positions of power and authority in the business and family is no longer taken for granted.
  3. The literature reflects the conscious or unconscious gender biases of the researchers who tend to suggest that according women an equal role in succession processes and outcomes will result in heirs chosen for their talent and therefore lead to more successful businesses. Some researchers take the opposite view, that the weakening of male primogeniture and other patriarchal models may adversely affect the long-term survival and success of the enterprise. These two contradictory positions underscore the need for deeper scholarship on the impact of gender on successful succession.

Pathways for Applying a Gender Lens and Future Work

So what can future scholarship incorporate to enhance our understanding and practice? The authors suggest two ways.

The first is to integrate a gender lens into some of the existing succession models and on that basis to revise them to create new models of succession. By way of example, the authors have drawn on the Expectation States theory from the field of Sociology and applied it to the Sharma and Irving (2005) model of successor commitment and revised it, creating a gendered extension of the model. See Figure 1 in the paper.

Expectation States theory ‘explains how the status of different social groups emerges and is perpetuated implicitly…particularly as it relates to social inequality’ (Nelson and Constantinidis, 2017). While not relating specifically to gender, it has been used extensively to help understand how gender stereotypes and cultural norms entrench how status and competence is accorded to men and women, and therefore what kind of power and resources are allocated to each gender.

The authors have layered a gender lens over the Expectation States Theory and applied it to the Sharma and Irving (2005) model of successor commitment across different levels including:

  • The Individual level – e.g., within a patriarchal family culture, how does the level of a daughter’s alignment with that culture affect her interest in the family enterprise and her willingness to sacrifice other interests in favour of her duty to her family business?
  • The Family level – by applying a gender lens to different individuals in the family group, the views of potential successors may or may not align with each other or that of the parent group. If the mother is the CEO and founder does this affect successor commitment within a son and a daughter differently than if the father is CEO and founder?
  • The Group level – what are the socially constructed gender norms within the group: more patriarchal or egalitarian as a whole?
  • The Society level – within the society that the family enterprise exists, are there socially constructed gender norms for types of jobs (e.g., HR vs finance), tasks (e.g., taking care of the family vs working in business) or sectors (e.g. fashion vs computer hardware)?

The revisions applied to the Sharma and Irving model of successor commitment provide a richer view to the type, extent, and interaction of gender norms across the different levels. At a hypothetical level, they can be strengthened or weakened at different levels to help produce different models of potential successor outcome.

Future Research Questions: A Fascinating and Urgent Challenge

Secondly, the authors make some recommendations for future research incorporating gender questions and theories which they have divided into different levels of analysis: Societal level, Family level, Individual level, Group level and Multilevel analysis. For example:

  • How do changes in practices and views of marriage (e.g., a declining practice in western societies) affect family business longevity?
  • What are the constraints of dominant models of masculinity for sons in family businesses? How do they affect the son’s positioning in the family and the family business?
  • After succession, how does a father patriarch develop his role in the family and the business from a psychological perspective? Is this the same or different for a matriarch who has led the business and family?
  • And as previously raised, on a long-term basis does gender equality in succession processes and outcomes positively impact business success and the longevity of the enterprise?

They also make some recommendations for future research questions that integrate other forms of identity, for instance race and culture.


I believe that as practitioners we will encounter a number of these questions as we work with families. Firstly, it is key for us to be aware of our own conscious or subconscious biases or preferences relating to gender (including gender fluidity) that we may insert into the family system.

As we do our initial fact finding and interviews in the first phase of our work with a family, we build our knowledge of the various issues in the family and business systems. It is during this phase that we should be encouraged to consider more widely and deeply what the gender influences may be at the four levels described above (individual, family, group, social and societal). These influences may have an effect on how the family considers who participates in the succession planning process and potential outcomes as they plan for the future leadership and ownership of their enterprise and on issues that may arise due to diverse and potentially opposing views in the family on gender norms.

Finally, as the family looks to the future, and while we respectfully acknowledge existing gender practices within that family, how can we appropriately challenge the family’s current thinking on the roles of men and women so that their planning can evolve and potentially be more robust and enduring resulting in a stronger family and a stronger enterprise?

Go here to read the complete article.

About the contributor

Maya Prabhu, CFBA, ACFWA, is managing director of the Coutts Institute, Coutts & Co. in London and has been involved in developing numerous reports and pieces of thought leadership. She is a faculty member for GEN 504: Meaning and Purpose: Philanthropy and the Family Enterprise. Maya can be reached at [email protected].