The Case(s) of the Misrepresented Women

Case studies are a common feature of the curriculum in most post-secondary business programs. They’re valuable teaching tools, but they’re  tricky to choose, because a case that’s too difficult or too easy, or too long or too short, can be a failure in the classroom. So I am probably not the only instructor who, when choosing a case, looks at things like how well the case fits with the subject for that class or course, whether the case can be done by an individual student or would work better with a team, or whether solving the case situation requires some serious thought and analysis. In other words, I usually don’t spend a lot of time thinking about the implicit assumptions underlying the case.

So that’s why I was both excited and also somewhat embarrassed to see the results of a new study that was just discussed on the Harvard Business Review blog – a study of women characters in case studies used in business school courses. The study’s authors, Lesley Symons and Herminia Ibarra, analyzed 53 case studies which were either top sellers or award winners between 2009 and 2013. What I especially like about the methodology of this study is that it didn’t just count the number of times women characters appeared in these cases – it also looked at how the women were portrayed, and in what contexts they appeared.

Symons and Ibarra found that women characters were completely absent from 24 of the 53 cases. Only seven cases featured women as the main character in the case, and six of those seven cases were set in companies or situations dealing with “pink topics“. What’s more, Symons and Ibarra also found that the cases with women as leaders or managers usually only included one woman in that role, and that female characters were described in much less detail than male characters. And finally, they found that none of the cases with women characters included gender as a possible discussion topic in the teaching notes for the case.

A cynical person could argue that since business school cases are supposed to prepare students for what they will face in the “real world”, the absence of women in these widely-used cases – and the stereotypical characterization of women in the cases where they are present – simply reflects the reality of the business world. Almost all of the cases in Symons and Ibarra’s sample are set in actual companies, such as Apple, Ford, and Zara. I don’t know how many women are managers or executives at these companies, or at the other companies used in the 53 cases. But I would hope that part of the purpose of education – in business or in any other academic discipline –  is to get people to look at situations differently and creatively, and to learn to think critically. So the excuse of  “it’s just showing how things really are” doesn’t work for me.

Women are half of this team, but you probably won't find that many women in most business school cases. (credit:

Half of this team’s members are women, but you probably won’t find that many women in most business school cases. (credit:

In thinking about the finding that gender was missing from the 53 cases’ teaching notes, it occurred to me that the only times I’ve seen gender suggested as a discussion topic for cases is when the case is explicitly about a “gender” or “diversity” issue, such as affirmative action hiring. Admittedly, my  experience with cases may be biased  because I teach courses on gender and diversity in the workplace, and courses in human resource management. So I see more cases dealing with interpersonal workplace issues, rather than cases dealing with, say,  financial or operational issues. But nevertheless, gender often implicitly affects issues that arise in the workplace, or influences decision-making in organizations – so it’s troubling that instructors are not being prompted to get students to think about the effects of gender on the situations in these cases.

The results of this study also reminded me that one of my favourite classroom cases – a case that involves assessing different employees’ requests for time off or flexible work arrangements – is a case where all the names are gender-neutral. For example, one of the requests in the case is from “Chris”,  who wants to change their work schedule to take “their father” to doctors’ appointments. And students are totally flummoxed by these non-gender-specific references.

When they read the case, I can see the looks of puzzlement emerge on their faces. Then they start whispering to the other students in their group, and  usually one student will come up to me and quietly ask, “Is Chris [or one of the other characters] a man or a woman?” – to which I say, “You need to decide that for yourselves, and you need to decide if that’s an important factor in the situation.”  And when one group decides that “Chris” is a man and another group decides that “Chris” is a a woman, the two groups almost always come up with different responses to the situation – even though they are looking at identical case facts. This, to me, just reinforces that gender is an issue in business decision-making, even when we think it’s not – or when we think that this is the 21st century and “men and women are all equal now.”

Most business school cases end with some form of one simple question: what would you do? Personally, I really appreciate Symons and Ibarra’s work, because it’s going to make me think a lot more carefully about the cases that I use in my classes. I won’t be thinking just about the individual cases – although clearly there are some serious systemic issues of gender inequality within cases – but I’ll also be thinking about the collective features of all the cases I use, and how the cases collectively portray the “real world”. But the results of Symons and Ibarra’s study also raise the what would you do? question not just for individual instructors like me, but for business schools and business education programs as a whole.  The curriculum in business schools has a lot of problems, and this is just another one – but it’s one that deserves some serious attention. I hope that Symons and Ibarra’s study helps start that conversation.







One comment

  1. In the 80’s, I built a semiconductor company that grew to 3500 employees in facilities located in the U.S., Europe and Asia.

    We designed and manufactured IC’s for everything from toys to spacecraft. The highest of the high-tech industries.

    You cannot imagine the difficulty, at the time, finding women who were graduating with degrees that were useful to my business. I hired as many women engineers and managers as I could find, but ended up with only about a quarter in technical staff and management.

    As a true capitalist, I only cared about finding the best people, not filling quotas, but recognizing that diversity would be beneficial, I went out of my way to find, train and promote.

    The problem at the time, was that in at least my field, it takes time to develop the advanced skills necessary for design and management.

    The best rise to the top, and usually from the largest pool of talent. When they were women, they got the job. If it was a man, he got the job.

    I wanted to ensure the success and profitability of the organization, and knew that only the best would make that likely.

    The more women who graduate (and they are now graduating at higher rates than men), the more likely that the truly talented will come from that sector.

    But even writing that feels weird, because that isn’t how you hire. You find people that are talented, dynamic and crazy motivated, and they win the job.

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