Op-Ed: Ana Botin got promoted on merit not nepotism.

In September 2014, Ana Botin succeeded her father Emilio Botin at Santander and has been named the top female banker in Europe by Bloomberg.

This appointment makes Ana the first woman to chair a global bank. She has worked hard to win this position and has positive endorsements from Citi’s ex chief Sanford “Sandy” Weill.

In an interview with Time magazine back in 2004, Botin said “I started at the bottom. Nobody has given me anything.” For a woman who has committed her career to the bank, held a number of the top jobs and successfully managed the UK arm during a time of crisis, the leadership role is befitting.

Despite her credentials which speak for themselves, and unanimous board approval for Ana Botin to take on the role as global chair of Banco Santander, there have been some mumblings of nepotism.

Why do some investors feel that she has not earned the role, but been “given” it as a result of family connections?

Nepotism versus merit

The Bush and Kennedy families in politics. The Murdochs in the media industry. Multi-generational family dynasties aren’t new. According to the Family Business Alliance, “more than 30% of all family-owned businesses survive into the second generation. Twelve percent will still be viable into the third generation, with 3% of all family businesses operating at the fourth-generation level and beyond”. Ana represents the fourth generation of Botin leadership at the bank, falling into the 3% group. Are these successors (31% of firms indicate successors will be female) capable or have they been gifted with the successes of their predecessors?

Operating profit and ROA (return on assets) are 5.5% and 6.5% higher respectively when founding families maintain an ownership stake in the organisation. Surely this shows that these successors must be doing something right. Of course there are instances when the selection of a successor may be due to nepotism and not capabilities, and nepotism should not be completely dismissed. In the US for example, while there are no formal laws in place in the US against the employment of family members, studies have shown that up to 40% of companies have formal policies in place to monitor such activities.

For those leaders like Ana Botin, who have been selected to be successors based on merit, the nepotism discussion is a distraction. Instead, we should focus on the strong message that such selections of female leaders conveys to our society today.

What does Ana Botin’s appointment mean for gender parity?

This new leadership appointment at Banco Santander makes Ana Botin the sixth woman currently leading a Fortune Global 100 company. Although it now has a global footprint, the banking group was founded and is headquartered in Spain where its headquarters sit.

Spain isnt overly known for gender equality at work or home yet on paper according to the European Institute’s Gender Equality Index, Spain scored 54/100 and ranks 10th on gender equality issues out of the 27 countries in the European Union (100 is considered full gender equality). These scores indicate that there is more work to do, specifically in three domains: how women are perceived compared to men in the labour market (work), the financial resources and economic situation of women (money), and the trade-off between economic and social activities which women face (time). Spain leads the European Union average across the other three core domains considered in this index: knowledge, power and health.

Would any of these leading core domains have contributed significantly to the unanimous support Botin received from the Santander board? Potentially the power domain; this considers the gender representation across economic and political spheres – very public and influential platforms. 10% of Spain’s board members are women, as are 18% of members of Central Bank. While these numbers leave much room for improvement, when we compare them to the same data points in Italy (5% women on boards, 6% in Central Bank) and Berlusconi’s 2008 comments regarding Spain’s female-majority government looking “too pink” for his liking, it’s safe to say that Spain is on a better trajectory on the gender parity journey.

Ana Botin’s appointment solidifies this on a global stage. Yes, strong family connections may better position some of us in terms of networks and opportunities, but talks of nepotism as a reason for Botin’s success are a distraction. The next generation, whose aspirations we know will be shaped by role models and what society sees as “the possible” for women, can look to a successful female leader who has broken the glass ceiling by hard work and merit.

By Nneka Orji