MBA Case Studies: How Women's Underrepresentation Impacts Female Leaders


In January of 2014, Nitin Nohria, the dean of Harvard Business School, apologized to a group of alumni at the Ritz Carlton in San Francisco stating, “The school owed you better, and I promise it will be better.”

He was referencing the offensive treatment of female students and professors, as well as the consistent sexual devaluation based on gender that had been happening at Harvard since the 1960s. In his speech, he promised to help combat this by increasing the number of case studies featuring female protagonists from 9 percent to 20 percent.

Knowing the case studies from Harvard Business School are a gold standard nationwide, he hoped that changing representation in the tools used to educate future business leaders would change the way women are viewed in business.

Read on to discover how women’s underrepresentation in MBA case studies is damaging to female leaders both inside and outside of business.

What is an MBA Case Study?

The majority of business schools use case studies as their primary didactic method. Case studies are often written by faculty at top business schools and sold by their institution or through a third party such as The Case Center. These 15- to 20-page papers detail a particular dilemma, issue, struggle, or hurdle for a company. Students, usually in groups, are required to read them critically, analyze the business decisions made, and present the next steps or a solution. Through case studies, professors want to gauge how students apply what they have learned.

This method of teaching originated in law schools and is an effective way for students to immerse themselves in corporate challenges. While this method is tried and true, it has one major flaw: overwhelmingly, these case studies fail women.

The Underrepresentation of Women in Case Studies

From 2009 to 2013, in the 53 top case studies sold by The Case Center, women aren’t mentioned in 24 of them and women are protagonists in only seven. To add insult to injury, in two of those seven cases, the protagonist was, in fact, a man, but the authors felt there needed to be more representation and changed the name, and sex, of the protagonist. Which leaves just five cases (9 percent) of the top-selling case studies that feature women.

Problematically, when women are featured in case studies, these women are primarily from “pink” industries such as clothing, food, family, women’s health or furniture. Of the aforementioned seven cases with a female protagonist, six were in pink industries.

Slowly the landscape is changing. Harvard Business Publishing, who publishes and sells cases studies, is addressing the gender gap in case studies by compiling studies that feature female protagonists across industries, citing that research has shown portraying female leaders helps to combat gender stereotypes.

The Stereotypical Representation of Women in MBA Case Studies

Is it enough to simply have case studies featuring women?

Sadly, the answer seems to be no. When female leaders are included in case studies, they are frequently the only women mentioned and the language used to describe them reinforces gender stereotypes.

Colleen M. Sharen and Rosemary A. McGowan published a paper in 2018 analyzing how women are represented in the case studies that feature them. The authors note that “Beliefs about the traits, characteristics, and gender associated with managerial capabilities are shaped, in part, by students’ educational experiences.” Their objective was to use data analysis to uncover if there is a hidden biased and gendered curriculum in the top-selling case studies.

For their study, Sharen and McGowan looked at 296 case studies. They found 51 of those featured women and then paired them to 51 similar case studies with male protagonists. They then conducted a thorough content analysis and coding process to identify trends and patterns. What the research revealed was a strong and consistent bias against women’s leadership abilities and consistent reinforcement of gender stereotypes. They found that:

  • Women were the sole protagonist less frequently than men.
  • In cases with female protagonists, other male characters were described more frequently and in more detail.
  • Male protagonists were quoted more frequently and extensively than female ones.
  • When authors referred to female protagonists decision making, they added “and her team” more often than they did for men, effectively diffusing her authority, accountability and power.
  • Women were described as having dreams, passion, and intuition less frequently than men.
  • When women were described as having vision or dreams, this was often attributed to the organization as well, whereas for men, their dreams and visions were attributed to themselves.
  • Women were described as having legitimate power (i.e., power that comes from an organization or position) in only five out of the 51 cases. Men were described as having this power in 48 out of 51.
  • Men were portrayed as more collaborative.

Beyond the bias of leadership abilities, the case studies reinforced gender stereotypes by portraying women as more cautious, ethical, and emotional. They are also described as being less certain. Authors also spent significantly more time establishing the credibility of women in their texts than they did for men.

How Gender Stereotypes Affect Women in Business

Why is this so problematic? Representation, the kind that is unbiased and not stereotyped, is critical to women being successful in business. Students are being socialized to not see women in leadership roles. According to Colleen Ammerman, the gender inclusive director of the Harvard Business School, when leadership is narrowly defined as a strong white man, “it not only hinders the ability of students who don’t share those characteristics to identify with the protagonist, it reinforces stereotypes about who ‘real leaders’ are.”

When students ultimately become leaders in business, they take on the biases of what leaders look like. This shows up in subtle ways in the workplace, such as a male coworker remarking that he was surprised at a female coworker’s calm attitude under pressure, a woman’s dress being discussed at a board meeting, or women being excluded from invites to networking because of assumed parenting responsibilities.

These attitudes harm women in many ways, including physically, as it literally raises their blood pressure. A study published in The Annals of Behavioral Medicine found that women who experienced everyday microaggressions and discrimination had higher blood pressure after ten years than their counterparts who did not. Women also experience distrubed sleep, anxiety, depression, weight gain, and cardiovascular issues because of how they are treated in the workplace.

Women also consistently earn less money than men because of these reinforced biases. Despite national and state laws against wage discimination, women in the United States earn an average of 80 cents for every dollar a man makes. Hispanic women made even less at an average of 58 cents for every white male-earned dollar.

How to Address Gender Biases in Business School and the Workplace

The only way to combat these biases is to start earlier in the pipeline. Women are taking on high-paying leadership roles in many organizations, yet they continue to be underrepresented across the board. In 2019, Women in the Workplace (McKinsey Company) completed a review and found that it isn’t a glass ceiling that keeps women down; it is the inability to get on the ladder at all. This “broken first rung” is the bias that keeps women out of their first management positions and therefore stagnant for the remainder of their career.

One of the earliest places to combat this implicit bias is during business school and, more specifically, in case studies. Both men and women need to see consistent and unbiased female role models in the case studies they examine. Across the board, women do better when they can visualize themselves as leaders and this can begin with strong female role models in their case studies.

And women need other women. Research conducted by the Harvard Business Review found that, while both men and women benefit from social networks for professional advancement, women who have a close inner circle of other women in business are the most likely to achieve the highest levels of pay and executive positions.

Work is being done to increase women’s representation in case studies and the number of women in business programs has been on the rise. This uptick is largely due to the diligence of business schools to intentionally recruit diverse populations, the increase in program options, and a more favorable career outlook for female graduates.

But there is still more work to do. According to Sharen and McGowan, the responsibility to create an inclusive environment falls on the shoulders of all faculty—even those who think their departments don’t have anything to do with gender stereotypes such as finance. They write, “Teaching includes embracing the complex social context in which students will ‘do’ the subject. Building students’ awareness and questioning of the implicit, dominant assumptions that underpin management will prepare them to better influence, persuade, collaborate with and manage others during their careers.”

Ultimately it is up to everyone to try and do better. Authors need to write case studies that include gender- and ethnically-diverse protagonists. Professors need to ensure the case studies they use have varied representations. Overall, business school leadership should require faculty to meet minimum diversity standards in the case studies they use.

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