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The Gender Case Gap

By Emma Simmons

Woman looking at a mountain to climbWe explore the lack of women in teaching cases, its impact on business students and the challenge posed for educators.

Climbing the mountain fairly

Why we need a fresh and urgent look at the gender gap in cases.

During 2017, three business school masters students sought a priority meeting with their institution’s leadership. The students presented examples from all the cases being used across their classes. Mathilde R explains: “We had noticed that every time our teachers mentioned ‘a leader’, he was a man, while women were referred to as wives, nurses, teachers, or retired. It had surprised and shocked us that the school apparently considered that women were not supposed to be either leaders or ambitious. Mathilde ROnce we had started seeing this, we couldn’t ‘unsee’ it; we noticed that this ‘sexism’ was everywhere in our teaching materials, and that it was being internalised by both men and women.” Mathilde recalls the directors’ reactions of shock at their presentation, most of them having apparently never noticed the lack of women in the teaching materials they used. They reacted constructively, inviting the students to make their presentation again to the school’s faculty at their next interdepartmental meeting.

What Mathilde and her friends, Clara and Dounia, noticed could just as well be observed at the majority of business schools worldwide, and it is important to acknowledge that similar concerns about the classroom presentation of business, have also been raised in relation to other genders,Female students sexualities, and cultural and ethnic minorities and groups. Meanwhile, although female students are still in the minority across management education overall, many schools have, for some time, been seriously and actively trying to improve the gender balance of their participant intake, often very successfully; the number of women has approached, or even exceeded 50% on particular programmes at certain schools. So why are these growing numbers of ambitious and high performing young women - and female executive education participants - still being inadequately served with female role models in the case classroom, and is anyone trying to do something about it?

Getting the facts

Lesley SymonsLesley Symons has compiled extensive data that reflects just how extreme the gender imbalance is in cases. Already four years ago, she and Herminia Ibarra published an article in Harvard Business Review (HBR): “Our research showed that fewer than 10% of cases have a female protagonist, while more than 50% of the analysed cases include Herminia Ibarrano female at all”, she reports. In spite of gaining visibility in probably the most broadly read specialist publication across management education’s faculty and leadership worldwide, there is little evidence that the intervening years have seen any significant change. The dearth of visible female role models in teaching cases has remained widely ‘unnoticed’. “I have encountered so much resistance; it remains a real battle to get anyone to really engage with this issue, let alone to seek viable solutions to it,” Symons reports.

In order to apply some rigour to the analysis of the prevalence and status of women in cases, Symons considered the approach of the Bechdel Test, which is used to measure the presence and activity of women in Hollywood films. To pass the Symons Test, a case needs to have a woman in it, in a leadership (usually protagonist) position, and she must communicate about the business with another woman in the case. It is worth reflecting that these three criteria are normally met for men in the overwhelming majority of cases. As part of the initial analysis Ibarra and Symons established that just three award-winning cases passed the test: Dove: Evolution of a Brand; New Heritage Doll Company: Capital Budgeting and Zara. There are further concerns: “Too often, cases with a female protagonist portray businesses with a classically female bias,” Symons points out. “I still seek an exemplary case that would have a female protagonist, pass the rest of the Symons Test, would not be in a ‘pink’ industry and, crucially would actually have a balance of women and men in it,” she says.

Reflecting work and careers

Business situation with mixed gendersThis is surely not asking for anything unreasonable. The real workplace is populated by both core genders and they collaborate and interact in the everyday course of doing business. But there are those who seek to explain, or even justify, why the vast majority of case protagonists are men, by the fact that they simply reflect reality: women still represent a mere fraction of senior management. But, is not a fundamental reason for seeking an education, aspiration – for all students? In fact, middle management sees a steadily growing progression towards a greater gender balance, which is certainly not reflected in cases – arguably an even more serious concern because, in reality, the minority of business students will end up right at the top. In any event, this cannot be put forward as a robust ‘excuse’, given the variety in both field and desk researched teaching cases. A significant proportion of both are either disguised, have not been fully cleared by a company, have been created in order to illustrate a particular theory, and may be completely fictitious. The authors of many such cases could simply select the gender of both main protagonist and other actors without having any adverse impact on the pedagogical purpose of the case.

Isabel Fernandez-MateoAt London Business School, Isabel Fernandez-Mateo studies how firms and individuals, relationships and networks, influence career outcomes and the capture of economic value; her research adds a relevant perspective to her observations as a teacher. “As educators, we aim to have an inclusive approach to all our participants; we need to offer - and be seen to offer - the same education and opportunities to all,” she says. Fernandez-Mateo focuses on the concept of ‘belonging’ (Women Are Less Likely to Apply for Executive Roles If They’ve Been Rejected Before). Here she sees a danger: “When people are thinking about future careers or job applications, they will also consider ‘will I belong here?’ So, if you are a female student and you repeatedly see only male protagonists - ‘heroes’ - you reflect that you won’t see ‘people like me’ and that may well deter you from pursuing certain careers or entrepreneurial opportunities. But this is also detrimental for the male participants,” she adds, “as future recruiters or senior executives, they may well simply reflect and reinforce the ‘norms’ they learned in business school classes - men as the main protagonists in business.”

In class

Mathilde reports that following their second presentation to departmental faculty, some members took immediate remedial action, and switched the gender and jobs of characters in a number of their cases. So, might simply ensuring more equal numbers of men and women are depicted across the teaching materials used on a programme resolve the whole issue?

Lean InIn 2013, Sheryl Sandberg, one of the most successful and high profile business leaders of our age, published Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead in which she rekindled the discussion of the cases Heidi Roizen and Howard Roizen. The two cases are identical in all but the name and gender of the main protagonist, (Heidi Roizen is a Silicon Valley entrepreneur). Francis (Frank) J. Flynn, taught each case to a different half of his class. His significant finding was that students were much harsher in their assessment of Heidi than of Howard. Heidi was generally perceived to be aggressive, rather than assertive, not likeable and someone they would neither want to hire nor work with. Meanwhile Howard was largely positively viewed as a determined and thrusting entrepreneur.

This experiment relocates the complex problem of gender right back into the classroom, where the case method’s core pedagogical impact is harvested. It appears to illustrate ingrained preconceptions of women and men in business. Female faculty themselves are in a minority and many report challenges not faced by their male counterparts to be fully heard and respected in the classroom. Female participants, along with certain cultural groups, may find it more challenging to speak up, or to be seriously listened to, in a confident, predominantly male, class. The historian Mary Beard has traced such phenomena back to Classical Antiquity. In her recent book ‘Women and Power’ she confirms: “There can’t be a group of female friends or colleagues anywhere, which hasn’t regularly discussed ... How do I get my point heard? How do I get noticed? How do I get to belong in the discussion?” Many case teachers, regardless of gender, are aware of this aspect. Some schools have compiled data on it and are putting efforts into providing a fertile and safe classroom environment, pattern of cold calling and record keeping that supports the contribution of all students to the discussion, something that is especially important when class participation accounts for a significant part of final grades. It should additionally be noted that female case writers are also in a minority and just three of the most outstanding: Jill Avery, Renée Mauborgne and Youngme Moon, made it into the The Case Centre’s 2017 compilation of the Top 40 Bestselling Case Authors.

Christine NaschbergerAt Audencia Business School, Christine Naschberger focuses in her research on issues of diversity, including gender diversity, and the role of networks as professional drivers. As a teacher she has observed how the dynamics of a class discussion, often depends on the gender balance of the particular class, especially when the case is exploring issues specifically faced by women, (such as eBay Inc: Creating Business Climate for Women). Naschberger also encounters plenty of participants – not just male – whose view is that “everything is fine and gender should not even be an issue on the curriculum. Some simply don’t want to talk about it,” she observes. There are those who fundamentally mistrust ideas such as quotas to achieve a greater gender balance, and her research around women’s networks has revealed a fear in some of being “branded as feminists. But”, she points out, “female participants, who have had work experience, are much more engaged in the subject of gender diversity because they have encountered the realities of the workplace.” Nevertheless, she upholds her responsibility as a teacher of all class participants. “When I address the males in the class directly and ask them to consider their responsibilities in respect to gender diversity, and how they think they might be able to affect it, they invariably become more interested and engaged in the subject” she says. “International classes are also fertile environments for a rich discussion around gender issues because so many different perspectives and experiences are contributed.”

What can be done?

One of the key ground rules in the pursuit of academic excellence must be research freedom, so the idea of schools simply issuing an edict to case writing faculty that they should include the same numbers of men and women in equal positions into all their future cases, feels both unrealistic and potentially counterproductive, especially, while publication of research - rather than teaching - remains the prime focus of most business school leaders. Additionally, the thought that the quality of a teaching case to best fulfil its teaching objectives might potentially be compromised to balance up genders does not necessarily feel constructive, although it could be argued that achieving and displaying this balance might be considered an even more important quality outcome. Whatever these challenges or practicalities, it does appear increasingly important - even urgent - for schools to formally highlight these classroom and pedagogical anomalies with their faculty. Offering the appropriate support to case authors, who, as teachers themselves, want all their students to do as well as possible, certainly makes sense.

Henning PiezunkaAt INSEAD, Henning Piezunka has published thoughtfully on these issues (Male Professors Can (and Should) Promote Gender Balance) and confirms that they are part of a wider context. “It is not that faculty don’t want to do anything about the gender imbalance, it is that they usually don’t realise it is a problem,” he says, “especially the male faculty. Such a lack of awareness is common among those ‘on the winning side’ of imbalances,” he observes. Piezunka expresses disappointment that institutions overall have not yet really tackled the gender issue. “Business schools should be experimental places and they could be at the forefront of a change which would have an immediate pipeline impact into the working world. Frankly,” he says, “it would not ‘cost much’ to fix this problem - especially in teaching materials including cases, and anyone and any school could easily begin with small steps in the right direction.”

Colleen AmmermanAt Harvard Business School (HBS), Colleen Ammerman oversees the institution’s Gender Initiative’s strategy, operations and portfolio of activities. “The 2012/13 academic year saw the 50th anniversary of women being admitted to HBS's two-year MBA programme and we have tried since to capitalise on that momentum to bring about change across every aspect of school life. A lot has already been achieved,” she observes. “Since 2014, women represent over 40% of the MBA class of some 900 students, and today’s female participants arrive with expectations for themselves that we need to acknowledge and meet,” she adds. Ammerman reports that collecting data has been an important part of the process of understanding the issues, and getting the faculty involved. The proportions of women in teaching materials have been analysed right across the curriculum and executive programmes, in some cases revealing the full extent of the mountain there is to climb. There are numerous ongoing conversations held to support faculty, and she stresses that none of this evolution could occur without leadership from the very top of the school. “At HBS we are aware, especially in regard to the case method, that we have a responsibility and influence that extends far beyond our own walls, because so many of our cases are used by educators at other schools,” Ammerman says. “Teachers worldwide look to us for ‘best practice’. We are sensitive to the fact that faculty need to consider many things when developing a case, so we suggest now including ‘gender’ as part of the calculus of that process. Thinking creatively about broadening the pool of protagonists beyond, say, Fortune 500 business leaders, may be a relevant part of that calculus if we want to bring about change,” she adds.

And there are things that individual teachers anywhere in the world can do. Ideas from those we spoke to ranged from ensuring that their own choices of teaching materials were gender balanced with whatever creative ‘tweaking’ that might entail, to looking carefully at their class discussion dynamics and calling patterns, bringing in successful female speakers to class whenever possible, to looking at a main (male) case protagonist through the eyes of another - female - actor in the case, or creating such a character to do that - just some of the suggestions we received that could be immediately implemented.

Changing cases

Richard McCrackenAt The Case Centre, Director Richard McCracken, acknowledges a historical lack of gender transparency in registered cases, which has posed a practical challenge for those wanting to seek out cases involving successful females. While the keywords ‘woman’ or ‘women’ can be input to search for a case, there is no current automated data to flag the gender of case characters. “We are taking hold of this important issue,” he says, “by working to develop a facility that will capture the gender of a case’s actors so teachers worldwide will be able to search for cases using gender criteria - and not restricted to male/female. We are clear that in the longer term this information will be required both from schools and individual authors before successful case registration. In due time it will become apparent which schools are developing cases with a healthy balance of protagonists - and which are not.”

Black Lives Matter foundersThe research for this article revealed that there is widespread ignorance of the extremely unbalanced female/male representation in cases. The exploration also exposed some unexpected, unexplained and disappointing reluctance to contribute to the topic by certain senior - female - business school faculty and leadership in several world regions. Nevertheless, in all those schools and faculty who did engage, there was a palpable and conscious desire and willingness to try to redress the balance, and to write and teach with more cases featuring women in significant roles. Most we spoke to are already doing this. Mary Beard asks whether we should “be optimistic about change when we think what power is ...?” She cites “one of the most influential political movements of the last few years. Black Lives Matter was founded by three women; few of us ... would recognise ... their names*, but together they had the power to get things done in a different way.”

Dounia C and Clara VSo, the last word goes to the three students we met at the outset: “We want women to acknowledge the fact that they can be successful, be leaders, have responsibilities, be bosses and be proud about it. This can also be good for men because they will feel less pressure to be bosses or leaders,” observes Clara. “Most importantly we want teaching materials to reflect the world we want to be working in, with as many women as men, people from different ethnic groups, backgrounds, and sexual orientations, to help us become open-minded leaders of the world of tomorrow,” adds Dounia. Mathilde concludes: “We know that this is a long battle and that many stereotypes have been taught since childhood. In this respect, higher education is the ‘end of the chain’, but we believe that we can start something happening by raising awareness on the matter.” Perhaps this article may contribute to their wise and courageous mission.

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