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31 March 2020

Business schools should be leading the way in tackling gender gaps


To transform gendered business environments, women need to be adequately featured in business school teaching material

Woman business leader

When I started my master’s at INSEAD business school in 2013 I immediately noticed that women were underrepresented from the student body through to professorial level. I realised this underrepresentation went as far as the teaching material we were working with – none of the business case studies featured women. So, for my master’s thesis topic I decided to research this issue – the first ever study of this kind. My findings revealed the extent to which women were excluded from these crucial course materials. 

Written by business school faculties, case papers are used to provide MBA students with an insight into real-world business problems and put them in the role of the decision-maker. The case study method is a style of learning that accounts for as much as a third of teaching among today’s top business schools.

My research covered 105 different papers between 2009 and 2018 from the Case Centre, an authority in case paper teaching. Here are some of the key findings:

More women in papers over time but not always in business roles

Between 2009 and 2013, women featured in 55 per cent of cases, which inspired the name of my research Invisible Selves: Writing women into business school case papers. In these cases, women tended to be in subordinate roles or from examples of marginalised communities.

Since 2016 women are found in 90 per cent of cases. However, although 67 per cent of the 105 papers had women in them, in 23 or 22 per cent of these papers women could either be missed by the reader or the women were in a non-business-related role (eg the wife of a character). We judged that women are present in a prominent or business-focussed role in only 47 or 45 per cent of papers. Women are also not found at all in a third of papers. We started researching the number of characters across a total of 52 papers between 2015 and 2019 and found that there were 89 female characters – an average of just under two women per paper.

Despite disappointing findings, there is a move by schools to add more women characters into papers.

Few female leaders and nothing is changing

The research shows that despite the increasing number of female characters, the same cannot be said about the number of female leaders. Of the 105 papers only 12 featured a female protagonist. And this figure has not improved over time.

I adapted the Bechdel test to use on case studies and called it the “Symons Test. In order to pass this test, a case paper had to: 1) have a woman in it, who, was 2) in a leadership position (the protagonist in the research) and 3) who spoke to another woman about the business. Over the 10 years, only four papers out of 105 have a women leader speaking to another women about the business, an abysmal four per cent.

It is imperative going forward that case papers not only have more women characters but crucially more women leaders, so that female and male business students view women as leaders in business.

Leadership descriptors with stereotypically male attributes

Men are present in 103 of the 105 papers. 83 of these papers have a male protagonist. In the five years we have been counting characters there are 450 male characters across 52 papers; an average of just under nine characters per paper.

Along with the lack of female leaders, the papers also represented leadership using attributes that are stereotypically assigned to men. Virginia Schein conducted seminal research in the 1970s into  the way traditionally “male” qualities are associated with leadership, coining the phrase “think manager, think male”.

My thesis, taking this into account, found that male protagonists were described using the following kinds of characteristics in case studies: “tough, assertive, results-driven, strong-willed, courageous, energetic and able to see the big picture”. Even in cases where there were female leaders, their male counterparts were described in more detail. This suggested that the correct leadership style being put forward by the papers is one with male attributes. This lack of diverse descriptors stifles discussions about different approaches to leadership and promotes a one-size-fits-all traditionally masculine style.

So what does this research tell us about business schools that are purporting to teach us how to lead? Business schools are supposed to prepare students for the modern business world, but their teaching material is outdated and promotes skewed representations of gender. How can we change work environments loaded with unconscious gender bias when the very places in which we learn about business are themselves steeped in such stereotypical bias?

A start would be to add more women leaders and characters into case papers. At the same time business schools need to analyse and understand, from the top down, the explicit and implicit messages about gender and leadership that all parts of their organisations and programmes convey to students. Business schools need to recognise the role their institutions play in maintaining this status quo and address how they can change these messages.

With relatively few women leading in business, the need for change is urgent. Business schools should be leading by example when it comes to encouraging women in leadership, showing students and the companies that they will eventually work for that they are ahead of the curve and are committed to developing leaders of the future. 

Lesley Symons is a leadership coach and researcher on women, business schools and case papers at The Case for Women.

Donna Keegan is researcher and project manager at The Case for Women.