Dr. Alicja Hadryś-Nowak Interview with Dr. Alicja Hadrys-Nowak

It is well documented that women face unique challenges in the business world – in both publicly owned as well as family owned companies. For the most part, existing research investigating the role of women in the family business sphere focuses solely on female family members. It thereby neglects an important group of women that while not actively involved in the company, may still exert considerable influence on both the business and the family: daughters-in-law. A recent study investigated German and Canadian family firms and specifically focused on daughters-in-law. It finds that while family businesses are thought to be an ideal place for the professional development of women, daughters-in-law face particular challenges as they become part of the business family and family business. WIFB, spoke to one of the researchers conducting the study: Dr. Alicja Hadryś-Nowak works as an Assistant Professor at the Department of International Management at Poznań University of Economics in Poland. Dr. Hadryś-Nowak has done extensive research on the challenges women face in the family business; she also investigates family business succession as well as family business internationalization strategies, models, and patterns.

As a researcher, why are you particularly interested in daughters-in-law in the family business context?

We are all familiar with the so-called “glass ceiling” phenomenon, which refers to the challenges women face when working in companies – including family businesses – worldwide. Prior research in family business has focused on the challenges faced by the wives of the owner and/or founder, or also the daughters, who might be considered as future successors. However, very little attention has been devoted to women who may not be direct family members, but who are also connected with the family business and may have an informal influence on both the family and the company.

Through our research on succession in the family business we became aware of the unique role of daughters-in-law. We began to wonder what problems these daughters-in-law, who enter not only a new family system but also new enterprise, must face. Unfortunately, so far, there has been hardly any research investigating the particular challenges the sons’ wives face in the owning family and the family businesses – despite the fact that these women may play a very important role in both systems. This lack of research, in my opinion, is due to the fact that it is difficult for us as researchers to access these daughters-in-law, since often, they do not work in the family company. Also, these women may be hesitant to voice their opinion, given that they are not direct members of the owning family.

What are some of challenges daughters-in-law face?

Our research clearly indicates that the challenges they face are different depending on whether the they work in the family business or not. We, therefore, need to look at these situations separately.

During our interviews with the daughter-in-laws not working in the family business, it was repeatedly mentioned that they felt unappreciated. They complained that their husbands worked more than the rest of the family, yet they were not adequately remunerated. Secondly, the wives were concerned that there was no succession plan in place, and this uncertainty became a source of tension and frustration for both husband and wife, and also their children. The third and very pressing concern the daughters-in-law mentioned was the issue of providing equal opportunities for their children. In other words, they wanted to make sure their children were treated just like their cousins, for example in terms of future employment in the family business.

The interviews with the women that worked in the family business showed that the situation can become even more complicated when a daughter-in-law works in her husband’s family business. The interviewees also mentioned all of the concerns described above – yet, the daughters-in-law that worked in the company found it a lot more challenging to cope with these problems. On top of these issues, the working daughters-in-law seemed to struggle the most with their relationships with their mothers-in-law and fathers-in-law. The interviewees argued that it was very hard for them to separate their professional, and private lives, and in several cases, the daughters-in-law left the company because of conflicts with their in-laws. One of the interviewees found a creative solution to her problem – she merely relocated her office to her house and tried to appear in the company only sporadically. Obviously, not a very sustainable solution. The interviewees also mentioned that sometimes, the relationships with other members of the family working in the company – and particularly with the other daughters-in-law – can become challenging, mainly because of the emotionality of those relationships. Problems often seem to arise when families ignore in-laws; this appears to happen frequently when a daughter-in-law enters a family. Usually this can be explained by the fact that a “new” daughter-in-law means that there are more people to share and to take care of, which can be (and often is) a source of conflict.

What is your advice to daughters-in-law within the family business context?

Unfortunately, most of the concerns the daughters-in-law raised were not related to the professional (i.e., competencies, education, skills), but rather to the emotional sphere. These difficulties are a lot more challenging to deal with, in particular because these women are not direct family members. It may be tempting just to try to overlook the difficulties, but in the long run, these unresolved issues will create tremendous problems not only for the spousal relationship, but for the entire family and the business. Integrating daughters-in-law may be beneficial not only to the enterprise, but also to the family, as it may help to create cohesion and harmony.

We strongly advise both sides – the daughter-in-law as well as the family – to step into each other’s shoes, and look at how both can benefit from one another:

  • For business families and their businesses, who often struggle with limited (human) resources, daughters-in-law may be a valuable “asset”, and should be treated as such. Families should ask themselves what qualities these daughters-in-law may be able to offer to the business, to the family? They may also want to consider nominating a family member as a mentor for the new daughter-in-law, as she familiarizes with both the business and the family – this will help her understand much faster not only how both systems work, but also about the relevant relationships and the culture.
  • For daughters-in-law, in turn, working in husband’s family company should be viewed as an excellent way to build a professional carrier on the one hand, and to better understand (and grow closer to) her new in-laws on the other. If the family seems skeptical of opening up and letting in-laws get involved in the business, it may also be related to some negative experiences the family had in the past, which has nothing to do with the new daughter-in-law personally. Finding about the emotional history of the family is therefore critical in order to be able to interpret the family members’ behavior.