International Women's Day

The women of Asia's family-owned business are coming into their own

Anita Fung says that, amid changing patriarchal attitudes, female members of Asia's family-owned businesses are becoming empowered and less likely to have to face the irreconcilable choice between tradition and modernity

PUBLISHED : Friday, 08 March, 2013, 2:15am
UPDATED : Friday, 08 March, 2013, 3:48am

It is one of the ironies of Asia’s astonishing leap into modernity that it has been largely driven by one of the oldest ownership structures on the planet, the family firm, founded by men – and they are nearly all men – most of whom are or were deeply imbued with traditional Confucian precepts of filial duty, harmony and clearly defined gender roles.

That has left many female members of Asia’s business dynasties at the sharp end of the clash between tradition and progress, torn between family duty and the potential of an independent career.

A new report, “Understanding the past – Looking to the future”, for HSBC Private Bank,  examines the competing pressures on a new generation of women working for their family companies in Asia and suggests that resolving the conflict could have tangible financial and dynastic benefits, as well as improving family harmony.

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

But the siren call of duty is almost always irresistible: they return to Asia and the family company, traditionally to a less clearly defined job, in a corporate environment that favours their male siblings and where they are expected to juggle the tradition-bound 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.

It is not that they resent coming back to work for the family firm. It is clear from our research that despite any misgivings, family is still the core of their focus: they value the closeness, support and advice of an extended clan, and that finding a harmonious position within the greater whole of the family remains a top priority.

But many young women, particularly those who have been educated and may have worked in the West, feel limited by a glass ceiling of tradition, that their contribution is frequently unrecognised, and that their dedication to filial duty is not being fully rewarded, not least because traditionally family businesses have been split up and given to male heirs alone.

On the surface, it would look like a black-or-white choice for women: they have to sacrifice either personal fulfilment or family harmony. But HSBC’s experience is that not only can the two be reconciled, but also that the process of boosting the corporate empowerment of female kin can help significantly in solving  one of the other great challenges facing Asian family-owned corporations:  the transfer of wealth from one generation to the next.

The traditional model of splitting the business between the male heirs is becoming increasingly outdated in a world where overall corporate size is a tangible asset and cross-business guarantees can maximise asset efficiency.

More and more of Asia’s patriarchs are coming to the conclusion that a slavish commitment to narrow tradition will not only stifle women’s personal and professional development, it will also pose a significant challenge to the sustainability of the family enterprises itself. Family companies can ill afford to waste the essential familial and business skills that women can contribute.  Patriarchs are increasingly turning to trusts, holding companies and family offices as mechanisms to transfer assets to the next generation while retaining the skills of highly capable women and preserving the efficiencies of the bigger entity.
And these structures not only make it easier to include the female members of the family in the asset transfer, they  also potentially provide structured and satisfying positions that can be combined with the key roles of mother, daughter and sister.

Trusts need trustees, holding companies need directors and family offices need  chief executives. Many women already play a role in managing the family’s existing financial and real estate assets, making it a natural progression to move to a more formal position as director or CEO of a family umbrella company.

The future of women in Asian family businesses is far from being an irreconcilable choice between tradition and modernity. The new structures increasingly being adopted by family elders not only make financial sense, they also represent a golden opportunity to empower their wives, sisters and daughters to reach their full potential.
Anita Fung is chief executive officer of HSBC Hong Kong