Business school case studies depict women as more overwhelmed and less visionary

Looking for role models.
Looking for role models.
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If a movie contains at least two female characters who talk to each other, but not about men, it’s said to pass the Bechdel Test, an imperfect measure how well a film portrays women as equals. Though it sounds like it should be easy, few productions pass.

Recently, two management professors ran a study akin to a Bechdel Test for business school case studies, the based-on-real-life narratives about company leaders that hundreds of thousands of students use to make mock decisions and sharpen their skills.

The results were depressing. And telling.

In the 20% of case studies where women appeared as protagonists, they were depicted as more emotional, overwhelmed, ethical, detail-oriented, and cautious than men. They were also portrayed as less visionary, risk taking, action-oriented, certain, rational, and innovative than men, says the study’s lead author, Colleen Sharen, a professor of management at Brescia University College, part of Western University in Ontario.

Women’s credentials were routinely mentioned in the case studies, which sounds reasonable until you consider that 3.5 times more space (measured in words) was given to establishing a female protagonists’ credibility compared to a man’s in the study’s sample collection. “It’s almost like we have to establish that women are credible, because we assume that they aren’t,” Sharen says.

Nearly a quarter of the cases involving female business leaders addressed a lack of competence, explaining “why she didn’t feel qualified to be doing something or how she didn’t have as much experience in this field,” says Sharen. “There was not a single reference in any of the male cases to a man lacking credibility,” she adds.

Finally, the cases barely contained women’s voices. Women leaders were quoted in fewer cases, and with less frequency and fewer words than male protagonists, according to the study, which appears in the current issue of the Journal of Management Education, and builds on research published in 2014 (paywall) that found women protagonists run the show in only about 9% of top-selling case studies.

To conduct the new analysis, Sharen and her co-author Rosemary McGowan, a management professor at Wilfrid Laurier University in Ontario, limited their sample to a one-year period of case studies published by Western University’s Richard Ivey School of Business, one of the top-ranked non-US business schools. Only Harvard Business School publishes more case studies than Ivey, but unlike Harvard, Ivey doesn’t limit its case studies to those written by in-house professors. The authors can come from any business school in the world, Sharen explains, which arguably makes the works representative of what’s being used and selected by professors in the wider world.

Having pulled 51 case studies starring female business leaders (which, again, represented 20% of what was published that year), the professors then matched each with one that included a male leader in a similar context, and coded all the cases to begin making comparisons.

The research was inspired by another depressing study, this one led by California State University researchers, and published in 2012. It suggested that women pursuing business degrees as undergraduates start out strongly linking women with effective leaders and managers in implicit association tests, but that faith declines by the time they graduate. Something happens in the interim that’s damaging to “enthusiastic, smart young women who believe in themselves,” says Sharen. Something reduces their belief in their own ability to lead, and she’d like to find out exactly where the problem lies. Case studies were a natural place to start looking.

“We know from 25 years of research that having role models is much more important for women than it is for men, when they’re seeking a kind of nontraditional role,” the professor says. At the same time, she finds it equally troubling that young men may be leaving business school with a warped view of gender and leadership. “They won’t normalize the idea that women can be successful managers and leaders in business until they start seeing them in equal numbers to successful male leaders,” she says.

When she has raised the case study problem with professors, she often hears that gender has nothing to do with the mechanics of marketing, finance, or another speciality. Her response: “If you’re going to pretend these biases doesn’t exist, you’re pretending there’s no issue for half of your student population.”

“There’s an idea in business schools and in business that merit drives everything,” she notes. “Part of the issue is that merit is determined by the people who decide what is meritorious.”

In future projects, she hopes to quantify how many case study protagonists are written into scenarios where they make strategy decisions, versus, say, marketing or design choices, and see if there is a difference by gender. But in the shorter term, she’d simply like to see business school professors talk about the issue of unconscious gender bias, and bear it in mind when writing cases or choosing which ones to teach.