The Importance of Female Case Protagonists
A Q&A with Gender Initiative Director Colleen Ammerman
05 Mar 2019  
Colleen Ammerman

Why is it important to look at the gender gap in cases?

Ammerman: Cases ask students to put themselves in the shoes of the protagonist. They are designed to help students examine how to approach a business problem or opportunity and to imagine themselves as leaders who will encounter similar issues in the future. Research has demonstrated that women’s leadership development is hampered when they don’t see leaders who share their gender. (And the same goes for race and other dimensions of identity.) Cases also send a broader message about what leadership looks like. When the leader archetype is very narrowly defined, it not only hinders the ability of students who don’t share those characteristics to identify with the protagonist, it reinforces stereotypes about who “real leaders” are. The opportunity to see a broad, diverse range of protagonists in the curriculum is important for everyone.

What is the role of business schools, and Harvard Business School in particular?

Ammerman: Business educators have an enormous opportunity to provide role models for women students and to help all MBA students become more effective at managing diverse teams and working well with people who are different from them. Because Harvard Business School cases are so widely distributed around the world, we have an important role to play in supporting these efforts. We can create a ripple effect in classrooms beyond HBS by reflecting greater diversity in our cases.

What changes have been made? What still needs to be done?

Ammerman: We have to build on the momentum we’ve gained over the past few years. With that in mind we’ve been examining our curriculum and our production of new cases. Professor Boris Groysberg and I have conducted a series of analyses of cases and shared the results to spur more awareness and conversation, and Senior Associate Dean for Culture & Community Jan Hammond is working with a number of faculty colleagues to review course material. We’re also looking at how to support faculty in effectively managing classroom conversations about complex topics like gender and race. Additionally, the Gender Initiative launched a case collection last year, which curates cases with female protagonists. All the cases have teaching notes and the collection is updated regularly, so we hope that it can be a resource for instructors teaching a range of courses. And there is much more work to be done. Female protagonists remain decidedly in the minority, both at HBS and across business education, even as top programs admit 40% or more women in their MBA classes. Deans and other faculty leaders should continue highlighting the importance of diversifying cases as students will increasingly expect to see greater diversity in the curriculum.

Should cases reflect reality or reflect the diversity that many business educators and industry leaders aspire to?

Ammerman: Case writing, I know from experience, is labor-intensive and not always easy! In the real world, there are generally fewer women leaders than male, adding another layer of complexity to the challenge of sourcing a good case. Yet we can be more sophisticated in how we think about protagonists—if they all have to be CEOs of brand-name companies, you’re going to have relatively few women to choose from. Certainly, the high-profile women leaders out there would make great protagonists. Business schools ought to be keeping up with the diversity, limited yet important, that we see in various companies and industries today. That can go hand-in-hand with ensuring we widen the aperture when thinking about what kind of company or person might make a good case, as well as being proactive about looking to new and diverse sources for leads—not relying on approaches and networks that serve up more of the same.

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