Ask Amy: What if I’m not treated fairly at work because I’m female?

Dear Amy,

My biggest challenge about being a woman, daughter and sister in a family business is that my younger sister and I are not equal partners on the management team.  We’re required to get approval for almost everything we do, while the men in the business (both family members and non-family) have the autonomy to make most decisions without consulting anyone. As an example, I’m required to get approval before negotiating terms with a customer, while the men negotiate with customers all the time without consulting anyone.  I had more authority and autonomy when I worked in the automobile industry.

– Jenna

Amy Katz Dear Jenna,

Your last sentence tells me something important.  You have had the experience of making decisions and feeling a sense of authority in another setting.  I know it is enormously difficult to “go backwards” and to experience the pull of a family system that constrains you.  Resisting that pull is particularly tough for women who have worked in other places or have advanced degrees and return to the family business only to find themselves in a fight to gain respect and credibility.

It sounds like the men in your business feel some threat or competition with you and your sister that started early in their lives. If your dad is in charge, he may never expected you (or any other woman) to have a leadership role in the business.  Your brothers and perhaps other male employees were probably raised with this belief as well.

There’s a lot we could focus on with your question-how to “play the game”, the unfairness of it all, etc.  But I would rather offer a more hopeful note.  Because more and more women are becoming entrepreneurs and business owners, you and your sister will likely have some advantage eventually, even if your family’s business is in a male-dominated industry. Now is the time to develop relationships with women whose businesses may one day do business with yours.  So while you’re not enjoying full authority right now, you can be cultivating relationships with other women in your community and industry-and men as well-who value the contributions that women can make.  In fact, they may insist on negotiating only with companies that share their commitment to supporting women.

You and your sister are the pioneers in your family’s business, even if the men don’t realize it.  You have the potential to open the door to the changes that are happening in our society as more women take charge.  Family businesses can be insular and isolating. Get outside the business as often as you can.  Your ability to connect with both men and women in other businesses will have positive effects on your well-being, your sister’s…and ultimately on the business itself.

Keep in touch, Jenna. I’m sure that other daughters will want to know how you resolve this particular challenge.

All the best,





Jenna’s situation may be one that you’ve experienced, too. Let me know how you would respond to her situation. I’ll be happy to pass your ideas along.