The Dreyfus women are role-models - but sexism is stifling family businesses

Julia Louis-Dreyfus at the Tribeca film festival. Image: David Shankbone/Wikipedia. Licence: CC BY 3.0

Julia Louis-Dreyfus at the Tribeca film festival. Image: David Shankbone/Wikipedia. Licence: CC BY 3.0

When Leopold Louis-Dreyfus founded a grain-trading business in 1851, at the age of 18, he never could have imagined that a century-and-a-half later it would have evolved into a commodities business with unthinkably vast revenues - $64 billion in 2014.

Perhaps even less imaginable would be that his family would become a hotbed of female empowerment. Margarita Louis-Dreyfus, who married into the family in 1992, has since become de facto head of Louis Dreyfus Commodities, following the death of her husband Robert in 2009.

She blocked attempts to take the business public, and raised the family’s stake to 80%. As if this wasn’t formidable enough, she has now announced that she is to have twins in April - she has three children already - and to come back to work after taking just two weeks’ maternity leave.

(Incidentally, Margarita isn’t the only member of the family to serve as a role-model for women - Leopold’s great-great-granddaughter Julia Louis-Dreyfus played Selina Meyer in the US television series Veep, the first woman vice president of the USA who - spolier alert! - eventually becomes president.)

As we have written before, families are by their natures mixed-gender teams and women naturally play a role in family businesses. There are fantastic examples, such as Nicola Leibinger-Kammüller, third-generation CEO of Trumpf, a 90-year-old German tool-making firm, and Isabel Knauf of the building materials firm that bears her family’s name.

We interviewed another, Antje von Dewitz of outdoor-wear firm Vaude, who has made huge efforts to make her family firm sustainable.

So family firms are hotbeds of feminism, right? It seems not. According to a new paper published in the Journal of Family Business Strategy called Gender preferences in the CEO successions of family firms: Family characteristics and human capital of the successor by Jan-Philippe Ahrens, Andreas Landmann and Michael Woywode from the University of Mannheim, family firms show a preference for male heirs. 

Only 23% of successors at family firms the academics studied were female (they looked at single successors, excluding sibling or cousin teams), and family heads were far more likely to pass on the business to the next generation when they had a son. In situations where both genders were represented in the next generation, just 19% of successors were women.

The researchers also pointed out that the female next-generation family members tended to have “higher levels of human capital compared to the selected male family successors”, leading them to conclude that there was a preference for males that was not based on ability.

True, Margarita Louis-Dreyfus’ situation is closer to that of a mukoyoshi, the Japanese men who marry the daughters of business families in order to run their companies, than a straightforward next gen.

(We’ve talked about other pseudo-mukoyoshis at firms like Wal-Mart and Louis Vuitton here.) But that just makes her achievements even more impressive, as she didn't have the advantage of being a blood relative of the dynasty's inner core. 

Families have the power to promote able women in their businesses, and do not have to bow to a sexist culture. If they are allowing their judgement to be clouded by sexism, that is a massive shame - and by selecting less talented candidates to run their family firms, they are  putting them at unnecessary risk.

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