06.07 A historical lens on family firms and gender equality in the Netherlands, 1900-2000

This project focuses on the position of women in family firms in a historical perspective (1870s-2000s). It investigates gender inequalities in (access to) financial capital, social capital, and human capital, by mapping out these variables for men and women in multiple generations of Dutch family firms. In doing so, this project aims to contribute to the debates on gender inequality in business.

Project info

Project consists of following studies
Family firms – firms characterized by a certain amount of family ownership and management – have been omnipresent in the economies of both the present and the past. Long the dominant type of firm, family businesses have often been the subject of study in the field of business history. The role(s) women played in these firms, however, remains historically understudied. Within the existing sociological scholarship, that primarily studies the present, we can identify an ambivalence in whether family firms are conducive to gender equality. On the one hand, the influence of familial and patriarchal structures hinders women’s opportunities within these firms. On the other hand, from a historical perspective, these firms may have been one of the few places for women to even find work and security. The existing historical scholarship, however, remains limited to descriptive case studies. While these works shed a light on women’s often hidden roles in these firms, they lack a systematic approach examining women’s general lack of opportunities, the reasons behind it, and its development over time. This is why this project focuses on the position of women in family firms in a historical perspective. In doing so, this project aims to contribute to the debates on gender (in)equality in business. More specifically, this research aims to shed a light on why business and entrepreneurship today are still very much male-dominated fields of work, by examining gender inequalities in the workplace through a historical lens. These gender inequalities concern the differences in (access to) financial capital (financial resources and succession practices), social capital (networks), and human capital (education and training opportunities). By mapping out these variables for men and women in multiple generations of Dutch family firms, this research aims to investigate how and why the position of women in family firms changed between approximately 1870 and 2000. Studying this subject in a long-term perspective allows us to account for the changing institutional environment. This research uses four case studies from the Dutch department store sector to analyse these gender (in)equalities in family firms. Department stores are historically known for both their female workforce and female clientele, making this gendered environment an interesting lens to approach the question of family firms and gender equality with. Using business archives, newspapers, and other historical source materials, this research aims to shed a light on how women navigated this duality of (potential) opportunities and obstacles against the background of personal development, family, and work.
Project start
End date
Behavioral theory
Claudia Hacke
Utrecht University
Prof.dr. Elise van Nederveen Meerkerk
Utrecht University
Prof. dr. Tanja van der Lippe
Utrecht University
Dr Selin Dilli
Utrecht University
  • Cooperation
  • Diversity and inclusion
  • Employees
  • History
  • Institutional change
  • Institutional entrepreneurs
  • social entrepreneurship
  • Sociology
  • Theory of the firm
  • Economics
  • Policy advisors
  • (Business) historians
Work package
  • Inclusion
Sustainability threat
  • Feedback Cycles
  • Spillovers
  • Dealing with diversity
Theoretical background
This project will focus on gender inequalities in the work context which concerns the gender differences in resources, namely human capital (formal and informal training opportunities), financial capital (access to financial resources, succession practices), and social capital (networks) (Cach and Blair-Loy 2010). The project will develop novel strategies in addressing these challenges by focusing on the diversity among firms, and in particular test whether and how family businesses influence gender equality (in terms of having more female managers, closing the wage gap and occupational segregation) differently compared to non-family businesses. The formalized structure of non-family firms can impose impersonal rules such as rigid promotion criteria making it more difficult for women to develop further in their career during a life cycle which requires more flexibility between home and work. By looking at family firms, characterized with more informal practices, this project will test whether family firms favor women more in their career growth. The literature on family firms from the finance and economics fields highlights that family firms have features in terms of succession strategies, investment decisions and diversification strategies, which distinguishes them from non-family firms. These features have shown to influence outcomes such as economic performance (Kachaner et al. 2012; Bennedsen et al. 2017). Some studies (e.g., Haberman and Danes 2007; Dumas 1992) considered the position of women in the family firm too. Based on this literature, some features of family firms can be distinguished that can benefit gender equality outcomes compared to non-family firms. For instance, the practice of management authority transfer to a family member in family firms may encourage inclusion of women in managerial positions. Family firms potentially also provide more informal training opportunities as well as easier access to relevant business networks to women from an early age, due to informal mechanisms operating in the family firms (Treas, 1993). This may reduce the gender gap in human and social capital. Thus, the solutions provided within the firm can result in sustainable cooperation between the firm and women in the business, where businesses become a context that address the gender gap in resources and support women reaching to higher positions. Interestingly, the scattered evidence in sociological and historical literature hints to contradictory conclusions on whether family firms support gender equality or not. For instance, evidence from the Netherlands in the 17th and 18th centuries show that family businesses provided flexibility and opportunity to women to engage in the labour market such as in family-owned small shops, as traders and as investors (e.g., van den Heuvel 2007). For 19th-century France, Khan (2019) has shown that family businesses by providing informal training opportunities and access to family networks were key in supporting female innovators. Similarly, in early 20th-century Italy, Picciai (2017) argues that family business structure enabled Luisa Spagnoli, (founder of Perugina) to translate her local businesses to one of the most prominent chocolate factories and clothing companies in the world. Contrarily, other scholars argue that in family businesses a patriarchal value system continues to dominate and that women are often discriminated and not considered as managers, despite the strength of their credentials, until crisis creates a critical need (e.g., Dumas, 1992, Bessière, 2014). Another disadvantage of family businesses can be the difficulty of leaving the family company due to the tighter informal network and expectations in the succession process which may limit the options for women to pursue a career in the larger labour market. To develop a better understanding of the role of family firms in gender equality, this project will use a historical perspective covering the twentieth century to answer the main research question: How and why do family businesses influence gender equality differently than non-family businesses? It will demonstrate (the change in) to what extent family businesses provided opportunities to women to participate in diverse economic sectors and close the gender gap in resources, namely human capital (via informal training), social capital (access to networks) and physical capital (inheritance) especially in a period when the formal education and wage labour market opportunities were more limited to women.
Research design
This project uses a historical case-study approach. These case studies are four Dutch family firm department stores founded in the late 19th century, that either ceased to exist in the late 20th or early 21st century, or are still active and run by the same family today. The business archives of these firms are the main sources for this study, complemented where necessary or useful by other historical sources, such as newspapers or public history works. These sources shed a light on the financial, social, and human capital of the family members involved (or not involved) in the family firm, and how these elements developed over time. In the end, a comparison will be made between the men and women of the families on multiple levels: within each firm's generation, within each firm between generations (so over time), between the firms per generation, and between the firms over time.
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