What the Scarcity of Women in Business Case Studies Really Looks Like

Lesley Symons and Herminia Ibarra Women & Work Harvard Business Review

“The school owed you better, and I promise it will be better,” Harvard Business School Dean Nitin Nohria told an alumni audience in January, acknowledging and apologizing for the school’s problematic past concerning gender equity. He then pledged to double the number of business case studies that feature a woman as the protagonist up to a level of 20% over the next five years.

Dean Nohria’s promise is noteworthy and important. But what exactly is the magnitude of the case study inequality problem across all business schools? And what will it take to change this aspect of an educational ecosystem that provides (or withholds) role models and sends signals about who does or doesn’t have what it takes to lead?

We sought to answer these questions, even though counting how many women case protagonists business school students are exposed to is a daunting task – many cases are written, but few are used by instructors other then the original case writer. There can also be large variation from one semester to another in what cases are used to teach any given class. But one obvious entry point into is the information provided by The Case Centre on award-winning and best-selling cases that are used across thousands of business schools and training programs. Selecting the top three award-winning case studies and the best-selling cases each year for the five-year window between 2009-2013 yielded a total of 53 different case studies – some of the same cases came up as best-sellers several years in a row, and a few were both best-sellers and award-winners.

We expected to see few women featured in this elite population, but what we found surprised even us.

Across the five years and 53 different case studies, women are simply absent in 45%, or 24 of them. Women feature as a protagonist in only seven case studies. Moreover, two of the seven women protagonists, both of whom are from award-winning cases (on Levendary Cafe and United Cereal), were actually men; the case author, who felt there weren’t enough cases featuring women, simply changed the name, and therefore the sex of the protagonist.

Taking this into consideration, only five of the 53 award-winning and best selling cases actually describe the leadership of an actual women protagonist – about 9%.

But counting the number of protagonists is only scratching the surface. We identified four key areas where gender plays a huge role:

  • Women protagonists are mostly found in “pink” industries, organizations, or roles.
  • They are often the only woman in a significant role described in the case study.
  • They are described in less depth and length than important male protagonists described within the same case study.
  • Not a single teaching note for the case studies with women protagonists raised the issue of gender as a point of relevance or discussion. These teaching notes are widely used to guide instructors on how to approach the cases in the classroom.

Pink topics. The OpEd Project, which tracks the range of voices and quality of ideas we hear globally, coined the phrase “pink topics” to describe the areas in which women are most frequently visible as opinion leaders. These include the “four F”: food; family, furniture, and fashion, as well as gender-specific subjects such as women’s health issues. Of the seven award winning and best-selling cases featuring women protagonists (real or otherwise), six can be classified as concerning “pink topics,”, including beauty (Dove), breakfast cereal (United Cereal), dolls (New Heritage Doll Company), rugs (IKEA).

The problem with this stereotypic representation, of course, is that it inadvertently indicates that women are not suited for leadership roles in traditionally male sectors like manufacturing, tech, and banking. These are areas where women have actually made important inroads – just look at Sheryl Sandberg at Facebook, Marillyn Hewson at Lockheed Martin, and Virginia, M, Rometty at IBM, to name a few.

Token women. The famous Bechdel Test “measures” how women are depicted in a movie on the basis of three criteria:

  1. Does the film have at least two women
  2. who speak to each other
  3. about something other than a man?

We built on this idea to create a similar test for business case studies (which we call the “Symons Test”), counting how many of the 53 cases had:

  1. A woman
  2. in a leadership position (the protagonist)
  3. who speaks to another women about the business.

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 2 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. Forty-six 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.

This article first appeared on hbr.org.