Why the family business is good business for women

Family businessEarlier this year, I found myself admiring a bathroom. It was after midnight, I was at a work-related function in Italy, and the owner wanted to show me round the renovations she was doing on her palazzo. I was dazzled by the bathroom’s bright blue walls,  carved from a single piece of onyx.

After I’d admired the bathroom, the hostess ushered me into bathroom number two. And then number three.  It turned out she had many bathrooms, each with onyx walls.  The lady in question is staggeringly wealthy, owning multiple historic properties, some of which have been famous since the middle ages.

But her life was very different a couple of decades ago, when she and her brother inherited a business near bankruptcy. Facing calamity, the pair got the elbow grease out, made some tough decisions and she hit the road, selling, selling, selling.

Yet if you called her a feminist, she wouldn’t know what you were talking about. A self-made woman, she sees herself as doing what’s proper and necessary for her business. She is, nevertheless, part of a new wave of women who are reshaping the European business landscape – and transforming the role of women in the process.

Are career and family incompatible?

When people in the English speaking world talk about ‘work’ and ‘career’, what they often mean is work in a cubicle, or else a specialist role in government, medicine or academia. Getting to the top is an all-encompassing, family-hostile battle. So brutal is the climb up the greasy pole, that it’s resulted in writers like Ann Marie Slaughter grimly warning that women can’t possibly ‘have it all’, meaning a career and children.

She’s right, in the sense that many women don’t want to sacrifice their families or fertility for a career. And nor, in fact, do many men. The modern corporate career is savage and family-toxic, regardless of whether the worker is male or female. A child who never gets to see daddy because he’s always at the office, is pretty much a fatherless child, regardless of the kid’s economic circumstances.

But there is, it turns out, a way to have a satisfying and lucrative career that keeps the family at the centre of life: the family business. And it’s a type of business that I’ve come to believe we should encourage in the Anglophone economies. For the most part, we ignore  the family business, thinking of it as either a mom-and-pop outfit, or as something that belongs in the agricultural sector.

Please note that when I talk about the ‘family business’,  I am not discussing hobby businesses where Mum does some craft to sell on Etsy for pocket money. I am talking about serious businesses, in critical sectors of the economy.

The high-value family business is the foundation for some of Europe’s most significant economic areas. Italy’s industrial north is driven by family businesses: think Fiat, Ferrari, Alessi and Lavazza. And Europe’s powerhouse economy, Germany, is almost completely built on the back of the ‘Mittelstand’, the mostly family-owned small- and medium-sized businesses; think of people like the Hahn family, whose glass display cases are the first choice of museums worldwide. Although German companies like BASF, Siemens and BMW are world-famous, the Mittelstand employs 80% of Germany’s working population, and is responsible for 98% of its exports.

The family business at a glance

Regardless of size, family businesses the world over tend to have certain common features. The first is they tend to operate inside a niche, whether it’s making candied fruit or machine tools. They also tend to expand slowly, taking on staff and new locations cautiously.

More importantly, perhaps, are the psychological implications of being a family company. First and foremost, being a ‘family business’ is extremely important to their identity. As well:

1. They think long term. Families are very concerned with sustainability, because they want the business to survive into the future, to be handed down to children, grandchild and great-grandchildren. This means they are typically cautious about decision making, and are primarily concerned with adding value. This is in direct contrast to shareholder-driven corporates, which will often trash intrinsic value (e.g. by cost-cutting, firing employees or offshoring) so they can deliver those all-important short-term returns.

2. Family businesses are typically rooted in their local community. They have neighbours and school mates working for them. Family businesses do not fire employees easily, because employee/employer relationships are often deep, and to disrupt them will have a flow-on effect through the community. This has a dark side, by the way – northern Italy has seen a wave of owner suicides, as failing businesses have been forced to lay off longstanding employees.

3. They are family first. Naturally, all successful enterprises have to exist in the modern world, which means modern hours and work practices. But the first priority of the owners is family, which cascades down to a business-wide ethos of family. This is an ideal situation for women – they can be respected executives and entrepreneurs, but nobody’s going to bitch at the boss for taking maternity leave, or taking time for the kids. But nor can the boss take those benefits for herself without also awarding them to staff. So these businesses are generally more flexible when it comes to family issues.

4. Family businesses are debt averse.

5. Family businesses can be highly innovative within their niches.

Now for the downside:

1. Family businesses can be much too conservative. You can see this at work in Germany, where a significant number of Mittelstand businesses are failing to embrace digital opportunities.

2. Succession planning is a big issue. Often the old guy can’t let go, and keeps interfering with the decisions of the successor. Or the business is handed to an incompetent relative. Most companies that have survived for multiple generations, however, know to hire an outside CEO or managing director.

3. Bad family businesses can be miserable for the same reasons that good ones are great. If the head of the company is a tyrant, or an incompetent, everyone suffers.

4. When family businesses reach a certain size, they start behaving like corporates.

5. Family businesses can overlook the need for professional management.

Big changes on the way

Anybody who thinks Europe is down and out economically hasn’t factored in the radical change that’s coming. As the continent ages, a wave of business handovers is happening, and will accelerate in the next ten years as the boomers retire or die. The generation that’s moving into position are unlike any that’s come before:  they’ve worked overseas, they’re fluent in multiple languages, they have experience in different environments and they typically bring MBAs or equivalent to the table. It’s strange that this coming earthquake has been so overlooked by commenters, because it’s going to rearrange the face of the continent.

And one of the changes that’s coming is a new gender balance. While companies like Siemens scramble to retain their female upper management talent, family companies are embracing their female members for the first time. A generation ago, the business would normally pass to the son, but as Europeans have had fewer children, they’re bringing their daughters into the business.

The road ahead for these women remains bumpy. One owner told me she’d had to hire a manager to give orders to her teams, as they literally wouldn’t take orders from a woman. But as women owners becomes normalised, that will change.

Of course, family businesses aren’t infinitely flexible; they still have to operate in the modern business landscape. And, like I said, at a certain size they morph into companies that might as well be corporates. But small to medium size businesses typically have ‘family friendly’ in their DNA, and women at the helm of such a business can dictate their own terms, making it easier for both them and their staff to combine family and career.

I’ve framed this blog post as a feminist one because, well, that’s what this blog is usually about. But there’s a wider point here. The family business is typically a more human business – as noted above, family businesses tend to be rooted much more in their local community. They carry long memories. They’re cautious. They don’t fire employees easily.

It’s time the rest of us thought seriously about how we can encourage the growth of the family business in the Anglosphere, as a riposte to the brutal corporate hell holes that rule the lives of far too many people. Not only that, but where family businesses thrive, you get a diverse retail landscape with wider distributions channels. Walking through London, I’m always struck by how a handful of businesses dominate the streets: Tesco’s, Sainsburys, Zara, M&S, Starbucks. Walk down the street in any retail district in Italy, France or Germany, and you will see these big international brands – but you’ll see lots of local shops offering something different as well.

The first thing is to change the mentality that businesses are started with the sole aim of selling them further down the track. And then start to think about the regulatory environment, and how it can make it easier for family businesses.

Because it turns out, what’s good for the family business is good for women… and everybody else.

Time for a Bodycrimes kickstarter project?

Introducing the Stepford Wife app

Make her look the way you want her to!

A couple of weeks ago I was in a rural area when my phone started pinging. It turned out I was getting more blog comments than usual, thanks to a post I’d written called ‘Misogyny makes men poorer‘.

The post was about the well-known ‘marriage wealth effect‘ – i.e.  that married people accumulate more money and assets than can be explained by their individual finances alone.

One of the Christian Taliban – Dalrock – had written a post rebutting it, and some of his followers strolled across to Bodycrimes to tell me all the reasons why it’s wrong to be positive about marriage. Mostly, I was accused of being a single woman about to hit ‘the wall’, trying to shame men into marriage for my own gold-digging benefit.

Other criticisms included:

  • marriage is a synonym for ‘divorce’ and divorce is horrible;
  • the whole idea that marriage involves teamwork is demonstrably false, because women aren’t capable of either teamwork or loyalty;
  • women are horrible with money so why would you marry them;
  • men don’t need money anyway, and it’s only women who care about the things money can buy, so marriage is a bad deal for men; and
  • marriage will be redundant soon, just as soon as scientists have built artificial wombs.

First off, a big thank you to Dalrock for initiating the discussion on my blog, which I enjoyed immensely.

However! I must admit to being a bit bemused that men who are readers of a site that’s specifically about marriage (“thoughts from a happily married father in a post feminist world”) are so resolutely anti-marriage. ‘Cos Dalrock’s readers truly hate marriage. Just the mere mention of it seems to drive them into a frenzy.

Coincidentally, at the same time my phone started pinging, I happened to be talking to my driver about his love life. He was telling me how he’d got divorced for the second time, and how each of his marriages had lasted less than two years apiece. He was a bit miffed that I howled with laughter when he told me he didn’t want to date any more of his Mediterranean compatriots, because they’re all hopeless. Instead, he was looking for a more ‘independent, American-style woman’ for his next romance. He wasn’t to know that I’d been immersed in reading blog sites written by American men rubbishing American women in favour of the kind of traditional women he was dumping on.

Now, I wasn’t rude enough to say it, but if you’ve divorced twice after very short periods of time, it’s probably you that has a relationship problem.

Still, there it is. Since people tend not to change, maybe it would be better just to work with them the way they are. And, really, why should a man be denied wifely companionship just because he can’t stand women?

The time has come for an app.

I’m thinking what the world needs is a StepfordWife app, which will operate a bit like Airbandb e.g. it will put the spare capacity of one person to work for the benefit of another. I ran the idea past the driver and he was so enthusiastic about it he even offered to put me in touch with ‘a guy’ who can build it for me.

But the concept still needs a bit of refining, so maybe my readers could help me smooth out the kinks before I mess about with Kickstarter.

This is the basic idea: my app will tap into a database of women, featuring a range of ages and nationalities. The customer can click on the one he likes, and get her to come round and do wifely tasks. There will be StepfordWife uniforms for him to choose from, so he can have her in an apron, in a 1950s dress, or whatever takes his fancy. He’ll be able to pin the different clothes on her database picture, to see what suits her best. Once he’s made his choice, he can specify, for example, that she has to be at his home at around 6pm every day, to greet him at the door with a kiss and a martini. After she’s served him his favourite dinner – which she’ll know about because he will have put it on his profile – she will sit and listen to him unburden himself about his day. She won’t contribute to the conversation, except to tell him how marvellous he is and how it’s ridiculous that his stupid boss can’t see what a genius he is. Then she will clear the dishes and go away.

StepfordWife will come armed with extras, like ‘bread spray’ that can make his home smell like freshly baked bread. Heck, she can even bake him some from scratch if he wants.

And if he’s feeling lonely at 2am, he can call up a StepfordWife to come round and cuddle him.

If he wants to be a premium subscriber, he gets exclusive access to the woman of his choice, guaranteed, with maybe a couple of look-a-like backups in case his first choice breaks her leg or something. After all, nobody wants their StepfordWife limping. These ladies will be flawless, at all times!

Now, you may have spotted the problem with this app – not all of the women who sign up to be StepfordWives will be comfortable with sexual duties. The customers will just have to accept that their cleaning and cooking StepfordWife might be different from the sexy times StepfordWife. But really, since misogynists think women are all interchangeable anyway, that might not be such a problem. The real issue is that these kinds of men want virgins in their beds, and that will be difficult to supply.

For Phase 2, I hope to overcome the issue by partnering with the makers of Real Dolls to develop a true Stepford Wife – a sexy cleaning robot with no opinions of her own. But that’s in the future.

So now, over to you! Any suggestions on how to make the StepfordWife app better are most welcome. Because my system will give everybody what they want: the men get a risk-free wife designed according to their specifications.

While I get cash and prizes a warm inner glow.

This is why we need feminism

I often get comments on my blog to the effect of ‘we don’t need feminism. Women already have everything’. Commenters assure me that women have every door open to them, and the work playing field is completely level.

There are many variations on this claim, but you get the gist.

Yeah, right. It doesn’t matter how competent and professional a woman, someone somewhere will insist on reducing her to her reproductive status. And before anybody tells me being a mother is a noble thing, yes, I know. It’s just that motherhood isn’t the sum total of a woman, any more than being a dad is the sum total of a man’s contribution to the world.

But instead of writing a long post explaining the issue, I’ll just use a handy example instead.

What’s the correct term for a medical professional who is putting their life at risk to prevent the spread of one of the world’s deadliest diseases?

‘Medical professional’ you say?

Only if he’s a man.

Otherwise, you do as the Daily Mail does, and call her ‘granny’.

Equal respect for equal work. Wouldn’t it be grand?

An observation on misogyny

Turned on my computer, did some stuff, and then had a quick whip round the misogyny blogs.

Feminism disturbs these people. It really does.

They are literally despairing of the world because women have the right to education, to jobs, to their own bodies.

They want a world where women are barred from universities, from careers and from the right to reproductive technologies. And they’re seething because they can’t have it.

Sad, isn’t it?*






Should Linda Kelsey have license to humiliate the obese?

Let's give busybodies a license to bully!

Let’s give busybodies a license to bully! (Stock photo)

One of my 20-something neighbours is a scientific impossibility.

She’s short and wide. Her width is almost the same as her height. I don’t know what her BMI is, but it’s way over 30, the point at which you’re considered obese. But it’s not her shape that’s violating physics.

It’s the fact that she maintains her fat in the face of vigorous dieting and exercising. She’s been studied in a calorimeter lab, a sealed room where she was given food and exercise, and then her calorie burn monitored. It was so slow as to be negligible, even when she pedaled furiously on a bike. Her mother says it’s because she was born in an area of Kazhakstan where the Russians conducted nuclear tests.

I couldn’t say. All I know is that she lives like everybody else in my corner of Germany, buying fresh fruit and veggies at the farmer’s market on Saturday morning, and either biking or walking everywhere. And, more importantly, that she’s a talented, hard working teacher who inspires the kids lucky enough to work with her.

And yet the Daily Mail’s Linda Kelsey wants the right to get in her face and tell her that she’s fat, unattractive and unhealthy, and she’d better do something about it quick smart:

It’s about time we stopped tiptoeing around the size issue, stopped kidding ourselves that anorexia, however serious, is the biggest eating problem we face, and started to tackle fat for the problem that it is. Not because celebrities and models are worthy of emulating but because fat is a blight on both individuals and society. One way to start might be by calling a fat girl a fat girl. No apology required.

Now, I accept the medical evidence that obesity can damage your health. I also accept that the more obese a population, the more strained health care resources are going to be. The question is, what’s the best way to deal with the issue? Taking into account that nobody has discovered a way to reverse obesity other than weight loss surgery, which is not just expensive, but dangerous.

Even assuming Kelsey can target her victims correctly – e.g. that she can tell at a glance who has an eating disorder, who is taking psychotropic medication that will guarantee weight gain, who is already eating and exercising according to Kelsey’s standards, who is choosing comfort food instead of comfort alcohol etc – the question that should be asked is, will Kelsey’s shaming tactics actually work? If she and her ilk are let loose to be as rude and offensive as they like, will they help anybody to lose weight?

Apparently not. There is a body of research emerging that stigma and shaming actually interfere with healthy behaviours:

Rather, stigmatization of obese individuals poses serious risks to their psychological and physical health, generates health disparities, and interferes with implementation of effective obesity prevention efforts.

Sorry, Ms Kelsey. If you want to go round wagging your finger in the faces of girls who don’t meet your aesthetic standards, you can’t pretend you’re doing it for their own good. You’re doing it entirely for your own self satisfaction. So if those girls come back with the retort that you’re a bitter, nasty bully, you’ll have to wear it, I’m afraid.

In any case, you don’t really want to solve obesity, do you? After all, your employer The Daily Mail would collapse tomorrow if they couldn’t run advertising and promotions under the guise of reporting if weight was no longer a problem.

But I’m sure that won’t stop you.


When nothing but ‘man up’ will do

During the 2010 World Cup, I was standing outside a major German teaching hospital, waiting for a taxi. It was a quiet, hot day that was suddenly disturbed by the sound of frenzied cheering, erupting from windows across the vast building. Inside, patients were cheering, staff were cheering. I think even corpses in the morgue were cheering.

Germany had kicked a goal.

Germans are getting more comfortable with their own feelings of national pride. For a very long time, Germans were taught to be ashamed of their German heritage, for obvious reasons. But in the past three or so years, the ‘Made in Germany’ stickers have been getting bigger, and flags come out whenever there are major sporting events.

Even so, if anybody is too obviously patriotic, they get glared at. Mr BC and I were in a bar watching one of the 2010 games, when a German erupted from his chair, punched his fist into the air and said something to the effect of ‘We’ve shown them we’re superior!’. The whole bar went quiet and uneasy, the joy of the goal disappearing in embarrassment. The man’s wife pulled him back into the chair, where he sat silent for the rest of the game.

It was interesting listening to the sounds of last night’s Germany versus Brazil game. At first, Mr BC and I weren’t sure that we were going to watch it. But as we were walking down the street we heard the sound of cheers. And then more cheers, a few minutes later.

Odd. Was it possible that Germany had scored two goals in quick succession?

We headed to the pub and took a seat. After the rain started, we went home and kept watching.

And, well, the rest is history. It wasn’t a soccer game, it was a massacre.

The emotional reactions were interesting. Cameras focused in on Brazilians crying in the stands, or slinking away. The Germans started off screaming and cheering, but as goal after goal was kicked by their team, they became subdued, even uneasy, not wanting to gloat or look too patriotic.

On the field, the German players were focused, disciplined and brilliant, acting in unison like a well-oiled machine. I finally understood why they call soccer ‘the beautiful game’. But what also interested me was the psychology of it all. Brazil is, as I understand it, an excellent team. And when we rewound to the beginning of the game, you can see the Brazilians started off proud and focused. But after the first couple of German goals, they fell apart psychologically. They became ragged, undisciplined, unfocused. Morale plummeted, publicly. And the moment that happened, they’d lost the game.

To be honest, I wanted to shout ‘man up!’ at them.

It’s a problematic phrase, this one. On the feminist side, it suggests that all the virtues of focus, discipline, team work and strategy belong to men when, of course, they don’t. On the men’s right’s side, I know they hate the phrase ‘man up’ because they see it as a way of shaming them into doing things that might be against their personal interests e.g. apparently their religious leaders are always telling them to ‘man up’ and ‘marry the single mother’ when they actually want to run a mile.

I’ve often been called out for my use of language. Every time I berate some misogynist for being ‘crazy’ or ‘a twat’ on the Manboobz site, someone will step in to tell me off for using ableist or anti-female language (‘twat’ being British slang for ‘vagina’). And I’m aware of these issues. I’m always careful to use plural pronouns, for example, rather than falling into the lazy ‘he’ as the norm, and I’m fully aware of why that’s necessary.

But sometimes, there it is. The un-PC phrase is just the best one for the job. A word or phrase becomes so useful, that it becomes unmoored from its origins and doesn’t literally mean what it says any more. I would be just as happy to shout ‘man up’ at a team of women rowers who were flagging, as at a male soccer team. Because what else are you going to yell that’s pithy and does the job? ‘Stiffen your spine?’ ‘Screw your courage to the sticking point?’

‘Stop frickin’ crying and get on with it?’


Man up. The right words for the job.

But, alas, too late for Brazil.