Only three of the 53 case studies met these three criteria. And in a further three cases, the female protagonist was the only named woman and thus meets two of the criteria. (Some case studies mentioned women as the customers or service recipients, but they did not play a role in the action described in the study.) When women are depicted as alone at the top, it reinforces images of isolation and potentially contributes to the stereotype that senior women do not support the advancement of other women into higher leadership positions.
Impoverished descriptions: unlike the rich descriptions of male protagonists in the cases that feature them, the character and qualities of female protagonists tend to be described in much less detail. As well, in cases with a female protagonist where there is also a male founder — in ‘IKEA’s Global Sourcing Challenge: Indian Rugs and Child Labor (A)’ and ‘Zara: Responsive, High Speed, Affordable Fashion’ — the founders’ qualities are described in more depth than those of the woman protagonist.
Overall, the male characters in four of the seven woman protagonist case studies are given more space than the female protagonist. In five of the seven case studies featuring a woman protagonist, her qualities are not described at all. In the other two, there is a very short description of the protagonist: one in which the protagonist was originally written as a man, and the other in which the male founder of the company gets more air space than the protagonist. Without rich descriptions of women as leaders, we are left with stereotypically male models of how leaders ‘walk and talk’, suggesting that there are limited — and gendered — ways to succeed.
No guidance on how to discuss gender issues: 46 of the 53 case studies were written by men, including the seven with women protagonists. None of the teaching notes for the case studies with women protagonists raised their gender as a potential issue in analyzing the case, which, in at least some courses, would seem to be relevant to the course topic.
This is a critical omission, as research shows that similar behavior is interpreted differently when observed in a man or a woman. In one example, a pair of Columbia Business School professors took a Harvard Business School case study about a venture capitalist named Heidi Roizen and changed her name to ‘Howard’ in half of the classes taught. The professors then surveyed the students about their impressions of Heidi or Howard. While both Heidi and Howard were rated as equally competent, students said they found Heidi less humble and more power hungry and self-promoting than Howard.
The penury of women across award-winning and best selling case studies — coupled with their overrepresentation in pink topics, token status, impoverished depictions, and lack of guidance to instructors on how discuss any gender issues that might emerge in classroom discussion — has important implications for the education of our future business leaders.
Perhaps most critically, the lack of women role models is an important source of ‘second generation gender bias’, defined as practices and patterns that appear gender neutral but inadvertently benefit men while putting women at a disadvantage. By perpetuating the idea that men are at the center of business, case studies unintentionally depict strong leadership as almost uniformly masculine. Showing only one model of leadership implicitly signals to both men and women that women are not suited for leadership, and deprives both of alternative role models for different ways of leading and developing a leadership identity.
Further, this might suggest to women students or aspiring leaders that being a woman is a liability, thus discouraging them from seeing senior women leaders as a credible source of knowledge and support.
Business schools must play a central role in socializing young men and women to see both genders as leaders. Just like organizations today are expected to have diversity measures in place, business schools should be held to a higher standard when it comes to the primary teaching tools they use.
What would this mean in practice? Measuring the diversity of case protagonists and putting in place incentives to increase the representation of women protagonists is an obvious first step. But our analysis suggests that is not enough. Instructors of courses in which the topic of exercising leadership is central to the course content also need to be taught about second generation gender bias, how it affects the ways in which women protagonists are judged, and how to encourage students to recognize and value different ways of leading. And, as with any other change effort, multiple stakeholders must be involved, from business school deans to individual professors.
Until then, by relying on a skewed distribution of case studies, business schools are continuing to support age-old stereotypes and biases about what makes a good leader. And as business becomes increasingly convinced that gender diversity is important, it’s time for educators to take more seriously their responsibility to teach students about the world they are preparing to enter.