Ten years before Harvard Business School published its first case study, activists across Europe celebrated the first International Women’s Day. They demanded, among other things, the right for women to hold public office and an end to employment discrimination. In short, they demanded more opportunities for women to lead.
At HBS, we create case studies to help teach students to become future leaders. Each case generally focuses on one organization and features a protagonist, often an executive facing a difficult decision or challenge. Learners put themselves in the shoes of a protagonist when they think through a decision point or reflect on the leadership journey described in the case. But who are these “model” leaders?
Since 2015, the HBS Gender Initiative has been analyzing gender representation in HBS cases. After all, we know that the identity of leaders we discuss in the classroom directly impacts not only how students learn, but how they see themselves. With only two years to soak in these cases as an MBA student, academic institutions have a short-but-critical time to prepare women for a world where “leader” still equals “male” in many spheres.
Cases can play a key role in reinforcing stereotypes, which conflate leadership with masculinity. When the industry or subject of the case is traditionally associated with men and masculinity, the leader-equals-male effect compounds.
“A ROBUST BODY OF RESEARCH HAS FOUND THAT SEEING OR HEARING ABOUT FEMALE LEADERS IMPROVES WOMEN’S SELF-PERCEPTION AND PERFORMANCE.”
Ultimately, women end up holding back during discussions about topics considered to be masculine even when they are the most knowledgeable group members, not only diminishing their own performance but depriving others of their insights.
In contrast, a robust body of research has found that seeing or hearing about female leaders improves women’s self-perception and performance, countering what is known as stereotype threat, or the risk of identifying with a negative stereotype about one’s group. In this case, that women are less capable than men in certain domains. Studies have found that viewing photos of famous female leaders or reading about women in their intended career field empowered women to:
- Give longer, better speeches that are equal in length to those of male peers.
- Eliminate gender gaps in performance on math problems and tests.
- Rate themselves more highly on career-related characteristics like intelligence and competence.
- More strongly associate leadership with women.
Increasing the number of women case protagonists that students encounter is an evidence-based measure that can ensure that women are on equal footing in the classroom.
Understanding the elusive female protagonist
Knowing this, we wanted to look at the HBS case output and curricula through a gender lens. We first took a deep dive into the cases published between 2008 and 2015 and found that 20 percent of cases written by HBS faculty included a female protagonist. However, there was substantial variation among academic departments. That finding suggests that there was not yet a systematic effort to diversify case protagonists.
With that insight in mind, we delved into faculty characteristics. Were some faculty more likely to write cases with a female protagonist? We did not find large variations by rank, nor volume. Regardless of a professor’s case output or career status, about 20 percent of cases contained a female protagonist.
Faculty gender did appear to make some difference: 26 percent of cases written by women included a female protagonist, compared with 19 percent for men. While there are undoubtedly other faculty characteristics that could influence protagonist gender, these three key qualities—seniority, gender, and overall case writing volume—seemed to make only a small difference at most.
Getting diverse cases to classrooms
We did find a major gender difference in one aspect of case writing that may at first glance seem minor: teaching notes. While 40 percent of cases with male protagonists included a teaching note—an outline guiding instructors in facilitating class discussion—just 10 percent of female-protagonist cases did.
Is this teaching note gap important? Another study we conducted suggests that these notes significantly impact the representation—or lack thereof—of women leaders in business school curricula. Even after taking various other factors into account, such as discipline, page length, title, the author’s experience, and the size of the company discussed in the case, we found that the presence of a teaching note improved case adoption by educators outside HBS. If cases with female protagonists are less likely to have an accompanying teaching note, they’re less likely to reach learners around the world.
“THE DATA SHOW THAT STUDENTS’ RESPONSES TO A CASE ARE ABOUT MORE THAN THE TEXT ITSELF.”
Exploring gender in case production offered one set of insights, but we also wanted to understand how it figured in the HBS classroom during the same time period. Excluding cases without protagonists—those that explore an issue or region, for example—we found that 23 percent of cases used in first-year MBA instruction had a female protagonist. That number shrank to 15 percent for second-year students.
The numbers were similar for HBS Executive Education participants during that time. Only 15 percent of cases taught through the School’s four comprehensive leadership programs had a female protagonist. Among courses that focused on a specific topic, such as innovation or strategy, 19 percent of cases featured a female protagonist.
What do students think?
We explored MBA students’ reactions to case protagonists during that time, using ratings they provided at the end of a required leadership course. Women gave slightly higher ratings to female-protagonist cases than cases that highlighted men, but male students rated female-focused cases significantly lower.
However, class visits from case protagonists—whether in person or virtually—narrowed these gaps. Male students rated cases with an in-class female protagonist more highly than cases in which the protagonist didn’t come to class. The same pattern was true for female students and male-protagonist cases.
The data show that students’ responses to a case are about more than the text itself. Lower student evaluations of a case may not neatly correlate with its quality or effectiveness. Cases whose protagonists join the classroom clearly resonate and may even help students to see leadership as more gender-neutral. Role models are powerful, and the additional engagement of seeing and hearing the person, not just reading about them, undoubtedly amplifies that power.
While we did not analyze the use of case videos, where protagonists may not be live but students can still hear from them directly, it seems likely that these tools would also positively impact evaluations.
Slow but meaningful change
Has there been measurable change since we carried out these analyses? In the academic year 2020-21, 27 percent of new field cases featured a female protagonist, as did 27 percent of cases used in the first year of MBA instruction at HBS. Change is happening, although its pace may feel slow to MBA students.
Student advocacy has played, and continues to play, a vital role in efforts to diversify the curriculum, impacting students who matriculate long after today’s student leaders graduate. Back in 1972, the newly-formed Women’s Student Association presented their “Guidelines for Avoiding Discrimination against Women in Written Materials” to top HBS administrators, and have been elevating the issue of gender in cases ever since.
Although applying a gender lens to case writing and teaching is important, we would be remiss not to emphasize that gender is far from the only identity that matters in cases. It’s critical that the protagonists whom learners encounter represent racial and other forms of diversity beyond gender, but we weren’t able to extend our analytical work because we lacked sufficient data.
“ROLE MODELS ARE ONE COMPONENT OF TRANSFORMATIVE CHANGE. “
While the School began systematically tracking protagonist gender about 10 years ago, data on race, ethnicity, and other identities were generally missing from the case library. However, we’re glad to report that in 2020 the School launched a process to collect, with protagonists’ consent, data on race and ethnicity. So far, we know that just under 30 percent of cases used in first-year MBA instruction feature a protagonist of color.
There is more work to do, but by investing in data collection, analysis, and reporting, we can keep making progress toward a truly diverse curriculum and ensure that business education includes everyone.
Tackling the systems at the root of inequality
Long before there were women protagonists in the classroom, the HBS Women’s Student Association brought female leaders like Muriel Siebert, the first woman to hold a seat on the New York Stock Exchange, to campus. Ten years ago, the HBS Women’s 50th commemoration offered an opportunity for HBS to recognize the enormous impact that women leaders have had on the School and on the world.
The work continues today. At the Gender Initiative, we look for opportunities to bring to life the stories of a diverse and passionate array of changemakers, through projects like Pathways to a Just Digital Future and our Glass-Shattering Leaders case series, and our teaching material collections.
Role models are one component of transformative change. In tandem with clear and unbiased management processes, a commitment from leaders at all levels to inclusive practices, and equitable opportunity structures, they can undo patterns of disadvantage that prevent community members from thriving.
This systemic approach, which we advocated in our recent book, Glass Half-Broken: Shattering the Barriers That Still Hold Women Back at Work, allows organizations to get at the underlying drivers of inequity and build new structures to close gender—and other—gaps.
Much has changed in the world over the last 100 years, yet too many aspiring leaders still face barriers rooted in bias. To realize the hopes of those early International Women’s Day activists—to make power more accessible and recognize the capabilities of marginalized voices—we need to tackle the systems that keep these barriers locked in place and move away from a narrow view of what leadership really looks like.