What is the difference between unmarried daughters, daughters-in-law, and married daughters in business families? I had visited a family business conference and had, on being encouraged by the conference organisers to contribute, asked this question.

There were unintended consequences to what was supposed to be an exploratory question to understand the various rules prevalent in different families.

But this is a question that is interesting and deserves to be looked into in greater detail than just a cursory glance. I find that this explains the rules that the family has or doesn’t have. Given the fact that there has to be greater equality in all aspects for the female successors than what exists today in some families, this question evokes some interesting if not provocative answers.

Let us examine each of these to understand better. Let us consider the traditional background of the business family structure in which the next-generation was raised. This is typical of most families but there are, like always, exceptions. At the risk of sounding archaic, let us look at the assumptions and thought processes behind the actions of typical families.

The unmarried daughters were traditionally stereotyped and were trained to run households, while the sons were trained to work outside and become the bread-earners of the family. Consequently, the sons were given more opportunities to study than the daughters. (In some cases, the sons too were encouraged to join the business at the earliest as the elders considered a rudimentary knowledge as adequate to run the business. Any further education could open up wider possibilities and hence not make the sons also dependent on the family business, thus threatening the family security)

The daughters were considered the ‘wealth’ of another family (their future in-laws) and no one knew what kind of families they would be eventually be married into.

Hence, they were brought up under very conservative conditions with the intention that she could adjust into any environment that their future in-laws would provide. Education was considered as unnecessary as it could make them independent-minded, which was not considered as desirable, as it could lead to challenges as she may not accept the thoughts of the in-laws.

Hence, under the above-mentioned circumstances, let us look at the characteristics for each of the three types of family members.

I know families, where the unmarried daughters were asked not to study further after a basic graduation degree and the parents and extended family members would soon start hunting for prospective husbands. Higher education was discouraged as finding equally educated grooms would be a challenge (since all the sons were encouraged not to waste their time in education and join the family business at the earliest). And some daughters were happy to settle down to taking up their domestic responsibilities.

I recall once the father had come with his daughter for an interview. During a break, he walked up to me and politely requested to speak to me. I think he had assumed that I was one of the faculty and sought my advice. I told him that I had no control over the interview process but he was more interested in my thoughts on educating his daughter. His view was, as a fellow Marwari, I could empathise with his dilemma of providing too much education to his daughter. He wanted to provide the best for his daughter but was wondering if he was doing the right thing by letting her study. I turned around and asked him: What would happen, if by some unforeseen circumstances the daughter was forced to stand up on her own feet to provide for herself, and could not do so due to her lack of qualifications? How would he feel in that situation? And what if he wasn’t around to provide for her? (I put this mildly here, not to offend anyone). He looked at me stunned. After a couple of minutes of silence, his eyes welled with tears, he hugged me and thanked me for preventing him from making a very big mistake. And he said he would encourage his daughter to study and become independent. I had forgotten about this incident, but a few months later I was pleasantly surprised to see the father approach me on campus with his daughter and thank me again. His daughter had got admission to our B-school and was seeking my blessings. (I seem to have become his advisor and family mediator during the time the daughter was studying on campus).

Unmarried Daughters

The biggest challenge that these would face would be using their time while deciding what career to follow. They would be discouraged from joining the family business as this could cause future conflicts with the brothers (this was a male-line inheritance system with the oldest son taking over with the other sons being employed under him). If they had professional aspirations, this could be done as hobbies distinctly away from the main family business. Even if the daughters joined the family business, their roles would be in roles like website development or marketing, which was not too disruptive.

It is only now, that we are seeing increasing roles being played by daughters in some families. These daughters are much more educated and are actively involved in key roles in family businesses. While this would be easier in those cases where the next-generation comprises only daughters, we are seeing increasingly large number of families where the daughters are playing more important roles than their brothers.

However, the question of the share in the ownership of the family wealth (including all family assets including the business) and the management of the business are challenges which the family has to resolve. Most families work out an agreeable solution by distributing wealth proportionately between all the siblings, with the daughters getting other assets, but keeping the ownership with the male siblings. Management control though does not pass on to the daughters, but this is also being changed as families find daughters competent, sometimes more than the sons to take over.

However, this depends on the thinking prevailing in the families of birth and the opportunities they have given their children.

This is currently a big issue for cases where the daughter’s marriage does not work out and it results in a separation or a broken marriage. In such cases, the family of birth, could take on the responsibility for the welfare of the daughter, if the in-laws do not. There could be possible discomfort with the existing male siblings for their sister to join the family business.

Hence the tendency to build up a revenue stream business for the daughter to provide for herself.

Daughters-in-law

On the flipside, the incoming new family member is often having a tough role, trying to fit into her‘family by marriage’. In most cases, the transition from the household responsibilities to the business is a large one. The in-laws may accept their daughter-in-law despite their qualms about allowing her to participate in the business, if she has acceptable or exceptional qualifications. I find that it may also help if the mother-in-law is already working in the family business.

The biggest challenge that daughters-in-law would face is to bring out decisions that could be running against her in-laws. Getting acceptance is a big hurdle that they have to overcome if they are given a chance at all. What I find, is that the daughters-in-law who have succeeded are those who started small which they grew overtime, as the business and confidence grew. There are other cases, where the daughter-in-law has been pushed into business by some unforeseen circumstances which gave her the opportunity.

There is also the case of the daughter in law who is already working in her father’s business, in which case, most daughters carry on doing so if they can even post-marriage. In such cases, the family of marriage may find it easier to accept her working career as long as it does not affect their family business. However, I have also seen cases where the father-in-law has insisted that the daughter-in-law leave her larger role in the bigger family business, and accept an insignificant role in the in-laws’ family business under the father-in-law. Needless to say, this did not go well as this father-in-law was always picking fault at her work.

But there are all kinds of cases and this may be an exception.

But the families have to decide on the roles and responsibilities of the daughters-in-law when they join the family business. I would suggest that norms be laid down especially for competencies and qualifications just like any other family member for joining the family business. In differing family backgrounds, the family can set up another lifestyle business for the daughter-in-law to keep busy in, separate from the main family business, if needed. Some such businesses are setup to keep one occupied, rather than become the next unicorns, though my experience has shown quite a few of these are profitable and have done well. They could also be asked to look into the family’s philanthropic activities and need not be profit-oriented.

Married Daughters

This has been covered above, and hence I will not repeat this again here. But the key aspects that one has to consider is the role in the management of family business. If she is a working member with an equal role and responsibility, then this is one thing, but the key challenge arises when the married daughter is only a shareholder and not working in the family business. She could then be interested in the benefits of the family business, which she may see her brothers availing, and this could be a point of future dispute.

Families will have to work out how they will regard daughters and daughters-in-law, with respect to the rights and privileges, and to the role that they play in the family and family businesses. Usually these had been defined earlier, but now, with the increased levels of education, and rising aspirations of the daughters, these will have to be paid heed to and cannot be ignored. Surely, there will be two sides where one does not distinguish between the males and females, and treats them equally, to the other side, where the primogeniture is still being followed. It is not always a clear cut case, as one has to be cognizant of the other family members and what their expectations are if the family harmony has to be maintained. There is little advantage in pursuing individual interests at the cost of ruining family relationships, though there have been many such cases too.

While the best case for families is to realise that the only way out is to treat all as equals, there is going to be a long time, before we eventually reach that stage. Till such time, we will find that the families will grapple with this question, and discussions will continue. We can only hope that the daughters continue to make an impact as they have been doing, till such a day comes. And come it will.

Views are personal.

The author is a professor of strategy, family business and entrepreneurship at the S.P. Jain Institute of Management and Research, Mumbai.

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