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Diversity and Cases: Content and Class

By Emma Simmons

Different shape, size and colour eggs in a basketIn the previous issue of Connect, (Diversity and Cases: Context) we investigated how business schools worldwide are addressing issues of Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Belonging on an institutional level. Here, our global panel of researchers and educators contribute their insights into pedagogical issues that arise. We consider teaching materials, especially cases, classroom dynamics, and how schools are supporting this evolving imperative.

It is generally acknowledged that to sow and grow their aspirations, participants in business education classes need to experience 'people like me', which includes their instructors and learning materials. Neither of these yet adequately reflect the diversity of today’s cohorts, society itself, nor the ambition to make business and career opportunities fairer for all. Students and recruiters increasingly flag up this discrepancy and schools and educators are progressively responding. So what practical steps can and are being taken to modernise the pedagogical environment and the Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Belonging (DEIB) of the business and management classroom?


Alongside well-known entrepreneurs and business leaders, case protagonists are often the most direct representation of individuals available to inspire students, and to present people whose stories they one day might seek to emulate. However, what is both anecdotally observed and has been established in research, protagonists in available cases are anything but diverse in terms of gender, ethnicity, sexuality, and many other respects. The Western, white male predominates.

Natasha Katuta MwilaIn an era when many business and management classes have a fairly equal balance between men and women, levelling up the gender of case protagonists has become a pressing concern. Some faculty are seeking to address this through the creation of new case materials. "Female protagonists still remain underrepresented," says De Montfort University’s Natasha Katuta Mwila. "This is an area I have a passion for and I invest most of my casework time contributing to. Of course gender is not binary and we also need to pay attention to this consideration." A lack of diversity of place and ethnicity across existing teaching materials also raises concerns. "Early in my career, as a scholar of African origin, I found it frustrating not being able to find African business case studies to teach with," she recalls. "This is why, alongside my focus on female protagonists, all my published cases are set in the African context. But progress is being made and it is wonderful to see diversity of place in teaching materials now being recognised both in one-off special issues and newly established continual publications."

Creating a new case, let alone a whole new body of cases, takes time, so some schools are also investigating whether protagonists and environments in existing, useful cases can be reconfigured. Switching turns out to be feasible more often than many might imagine, especially where fictitious businesses or individuals are involved, or generic concepts are central to the learning outcomes of the particular case.

Sarah SouleWith so many aspects of DEIB to acknowledge and encompass in order to transform teaching materials, setting priorities is important. Alumni represent a valuable and often motivated resource in the pursuit of a more diverse representation among case protagonists and environments. At Stanford Graduate School of Business, Sarah Soule reports: "During the preceding year, we decided to focus our case-writing efforts on underrepresented minority leaders, and we have encouraged faculty to write new cases; all nineteen in progress are planned for classroom use on completion. Our alumni are supporting us, by using their networks to help source leaders and businesses for these case studies."

Elizabeth GordonAt Columbia Business School, the contribution alumni can make is also recognised. Elizabeth Gordon at Columbia CaseWorks recounts: "We have been working in partnership with the faculty to consider and proactively approach our own alumni as potential case protagonists representing a broad spectrum of diverse profiles, and also to invite them into class to interact directly with our current students." The fact that many business school alumni have experienced the case method, means they come to the process with an understanding of the way a case is intended to work, which can facilitate the engagement.

Stereotyping and authorship

But there are inherent pitfalls in writing new cases or adapting existing ones with a DEIB perspective, which frequently go unrecognised and unacknowledged. Following pioneering investigation at Stanford, Sarah Soule and her colleagues identified and shared insights on the prevalence of stereotyping trends in both the content of cases and how they were written. These included: sweeping statements about cultures, lacking context and reinforcing stereotypes about consumer behaviour, promoting gender stereotypes and reinforcing gender roles, and conflating stereotypes and marketing segmentation.

Genevieve Macfarlane SmithAt the Center for Equity, Gender & Leadership at UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business, Genevieve Macfarlane Smith advises: "It is not enough just to write or change a case to feature more diverse protagonist profiles. Our research has shown that case studies often perpetuate harmful stereotypes and gender norms, such as women being depicted as more emotional, less visionary and less agentic than men. While our research indicates that students who can relate to leaders representative of diverse backgrounds develop better self-perceptions, feel more confident, and often perform better, we also must ensure that protagonists are not represented in stereotypical ways that can be limiting or harmful."

Shaun GoldfinchAt the Australia and New Zealand School of Government (ANZSOG), Shaun Goldfinch highlights how faculty can find themselves having to adjudicate between considerations. "There can be a real lack of expertise available to develop new materials on diverse issues such as, for example, those affecting underrepresented indigenous peoples," he explains. "We can be faced with difficult decisions. While it remains urgent to get more such materials available for the curriculum, this cannot always be done as fast as we would like due to a lack of people appropriately able to develop them. It is important that quality of output is enhanced in the process rather than diminished."

Ensuring there are checks and balances for case content, and that cases are sensitive and appropriate in a DEIB perspective, has implications for who is actually developing and writing them. Much comment and research around diversity concludes that it takes lived experience to author authentic and appropriate narratives. This raises questions such as: Should women be the authors of cases with female protagonists? - and so on. Such recommendations to only have members of particular diverse groups authoring cases that relate to them are unlikely to be practicable in today’s school context.

Nicole HawkinsBut opening up the case development process to a wider pool of experience can help achieve a better final product. At Saint Leo University, Nicole Hawkins points out: "One problem of achieving more diversity in cases goes back to the demographic of most of the faculty who author them." So how can this be managed? "Cases are about storytelling and authenticity and a certain group of people will need to be in charge of telling that story. So, using a broader team approach, certainly when the text comes to be reviewed and edited, can accommodate a more diverse and relevant set of perspectives that more closely reflects the content and the protagonist(s)," she suggests.


Kate SangEnsuring appropriate language is used in DEIB sensitive materials is absolutely critical and can pose some of the greatest challenges to authors. At Edinburgh Business School, Kate Sang defines an authoring team even more broadly, when it can be hard to find people with the necessary lived experience. "Check how relevant organisations use language," she recommends. She cites an example of Europe's largest LGBT organisation in the UK context: "Looking at how Stonewall uses language can inform my choices when dealing with LGBT content, both as an author and in class. Such organisations that represent different groups of people often also provide useful resources specifically designed for educational use." Professor Sang urges colleagues not to let the pursuit of perfection stand in the way of getting topical and important teaching materials into class. “Never be afraid to actively welcome feedback from your students. Often they will speak up in class to fill any gaps familiar to them. If they’d rather not contribute in class about a personal response to an issue such as sexuality, disability or race, they may well email or contact you in person afterwards, and you can learn from this and update both your teaching and the materials used.”

Bradley StaatsBradley Staats at UNC Kenan-Flagler School of Business concurs: "On average, our students have always helped push us to be better," he observes. "Leadership is being called out in a productive way. In some ways 'inclusion' has always been an issue - now we find it is being asked for on a larger scale and more quickly across everything we do as researchers and educators. Business is also asking us for new skills in relation to diversity, so what we teach in the classroom directly sets our students up for their futures."

Sarah Soule recommends particular attention be paid to how language is used, especially when describing different leaders. She offers insight and guidance in her 'Words Matter' podcast on ensuring language is inclusive, particularly in new cases.

Nicole Hawkins points out: "Diversity of authorship will also determine the language used. On a macro level, language varies from country to country, from culture to culture; how we use language will always profoundly influence how a person would author a case study. Attention needs to be paid to how this will be received by other people."

Many educators prefer to teach with tried and tested cases that have worked well for them over many years in achieving their teaching objectives. "It is standard practice to regularly update teaching materials with new data or developments, so why not also update the use of language too?" suggests Kate Sang. She also urges educators to consider the supporting materials and background literature they regularly recommend to their students: "As academics we need to consider all the examples we are providing, not just the core cases or texts. In the DEIB context, you may be taken aback by how many of them, too, have been written by white men – and plenty no longer alive!"

Finding inclusive cases

Authoring new, or updating existing, cases is not a viable option for all schools around the world whose educators need to be able to identify and externally source DEIB appropriate materials to use with their students. This has not historically been an easy thing to do and it is only relatively recently that search criteria relating to gender, sexuality, ethnicity - to name but a few hitherto underrepresented aspects - have appeared in some school case collections or on the database of distributers such as The Case Centre. Some schools and publishers, such as Harvard Business Publishing, have been helpfully collating and publicising materials such as cases and articles they have currently available to bring diversity issues into the classroom.

Different shape, size and colour eggs in a basketEnterprising authors and schools are harnessing the power of social media to talk about their new contributions. "I recently published a teaching case in the Emerald Emerging Markets Cases Journal centred on the ethical dilemmas faced by enterprising women in the African context," reports Natasha Katuta Mwila. "By highlighting the case on my social media channels like LinkedIn, and via our institutional Yammer page, I was able to generate not just awareness of the resource, but also reach out directly to those interested in using the case in their teaching; I believe the personal contact with a case author is priceless because you can learn additional things not written in the case or the teaching note."

The most extensive recent initiative to bring together educators worldwide and 'equity fluent' materials for their classes is The DEI Case Compendium, developed by the Center for Equity, Gender & Leadership (EGAL) at UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business. The Compendium, undertaken as part of EGAL’s mission 'to educate Equity Fluent Leaders™ to ignite and accelerate change', includes over 400 cases with diverse protagonists and cases on DEI-related topics. According to Genevieve Macfarlane Smith: "To identify cases to include in the Compendium and help instructors find the right case for their context, we undertook a detailed process examining and categorising results from the search engines of 20+ leading case publishers. The Compendium filters by: discipline, industries and sectors, identity/ies of protagonists (for diverse protagonist cases), identity/ies of focus (for DEI-related cases), and geographic breadth. We also include information relating to learning objectives, highlight any award winning work, and invite case authors to put forward for inclusion their cases that may match the Compendium’s criteria." The entire Case Compendium can be downloaded free from EGAL’s website. It is worth noting that all included cases are also tagged within The Case Centre’s database enabling educators to browse cases with diverse protagonists, a DEI focus, or a diverse protagonist and a DEI focus as part of their wider search. The Case Centre is also discussing with all school collections it distributes ways to specify more DEIB relevant search criteria for integration into its case search.

Curricula, teachers and courses

Elizabeth DickinsonWhile we have mainly looked here at cases in the DEIB context, schools are increasingly recognising the need to examine their whole curriculum and establish where it lacks inclusivity, promotes outdated role models or presents restricted environments. Many institutions offer a free choice to their faculty in the selection of teaching materials they use on their courses, and there is a strong argument to audit these across the school, which some are already doing. This can certainly become an uncomfortable process, especially for well intentioned, experienced faculty and needs to be handled with sensitivity. Findings may also lead to designing and offering new core or elective courses that focus specifically on the issues of Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Belonging, aimed at raising the overall awareness of students, often as they begin their learning journey at the school. Some institutions are also developing DEI-related courses for organisations and industry leaders, such as Inclusive Leadership, created by Elizabeth Dickinson and Sreedhari Desai for the UNC Kenan-Flagler Executive Development program.

Robin DiAngeloThe unbalanced gender and ethnic profile of faculty itself poses a problem still to be acknowledged and addressed by many schools. In her book, White Fragility, Robin Diangelo encourages us to look deeper at the status quo: It is "… important to reflect on our teachers in our effort to uncover our racial socialization and the messages we receive from schools." She asks us to "… think about your teachers. When was the first time you had a teacher of the same race as yours? … white people … realize that they almost always had white teachers ... Conversely, most people of color have rarely if ever had a teacher who reflected their own race(s)." Addressing and remedying this imbalance presents a huge challenge to schools and implementing strategies to increase the long term diversity profile of staff clearly needs to accelerate. Robin Diangelo underlines the import role played by teaching materials and language used, regardless of who is standing up at the front of the class: "To let go of the messenger and focus on the message is an advanced skill …" but she warns this "is especially difficult to practice if someone comes at us with a self-righteous tone."

As a way to raise awareness and facilitate a visible step forward, EGAL recently launched a 'Professor Pledge' for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in Business School Cases. The Pledge is a commitment faculty worldwide can make to utilise and advance case studies with diverse protagonists and cases on topics related to DEI.

In class

The above considerations highlight the need for schools to offer support to their faculty. "Whether DEI education should be compulsory or optional - for students or faculty - is often debated," points out Elizabeth Dickinson. "Before the events of 2020 arising from the death of George Floyd, influential researchers pointed to optional education as the more effective path. That appeared to be mostly because the ‘DEI training’ that had been used for decades didn’t seem to be working, or could even make the situation worse. Current thinking has begun to consider compulsory education. But, in order to make something required, we have to teach in a radically different way, which is something I’m currently trying to figure out. Until then, we certainly encourage faculty to seek out more cases and teaching materials that include more diverse protagonists and situations." 

Support is especially needed for class teaching, whether or not this is taking place in person or, increasingly since the pandemic, online. "'Author' and 'teach' must be included together," says Sarah Soule. "In theory, we could author many wonderful cases, but if they aren't taught, this would be in vain." And, similar considerations relating to content and language apply to running a class as they do to to creating learning materials.

Chicks and eggs in a basketCase discussion in particular has traditionally been a precious and ‘safe’ space in which ideas can be freely shared and learning catalysed. In the age of instant social media, the process can hide pitfalls for students and teachers alike if comments are received or judged as inappropriate or offensive, regardless of the intention of the person who made them, or who that person was. The awareness and sensitivity for DEIB needed by faculty has never been greater, and the pedagogical skill of educators in their facilitator and moderator role has never been more pivotal to a successful class outcome. Today’s classroom stakes are high and can even reach to loss of a study place or a job.

"Creating a 'safe space' to share and learn is more difficult than ever, but absolutely essential," says Elizabeth Dickinson, "which is one important reason we have been offering education for our faculty. People in class often 'think out loud', or may express an opinion that can damage the ability to connect. If not handled well, such problems can multiply quickly outside class and become very 'messy'. It is crucial that faculty are given strategies to recognise and manage this. Lately, I’ve been incorporating elements of 'psychological safety,' and setting clear ground rules for communication. I say, 'my job is not to make you comfortable - it’s to make you comfortable in your discomfort'."

The 'cancel culture' is perceived by some to be an active guardian of those insulted, excluded or discriminated against in words, while for others, it is simply a politically construed, enemy of free speech. In fact, while not necessarily a new phenomenon, the profile and prevalence of the cancel culture is currently high and its volume is magnified by social media. Regardless of where individual faculty may stand, it is imperative for schools to support them to recognise it, understand its implications for class dynamics and for their facilitator role, and to be offered strategies and procedures to mitigate any such difficult situations that may arise.

Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Belonging impact not just on people’s daily lives, but also, fundamentally, on the opportunities they may or may not gain from learning in so many ways. Engaging with the pedagogical issues we have explored above has become an imperative for all institutions and people engaged in education. It comes far too late for many and is undeniably a work in progress. As expressed by Genevieve Macfarlane Smith: "DEI is a journey, not an end destination and we are all on that journey."

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