A Case Study About Case Studies

Today, I want to talk to you about something completely not pony related. It’s work related. It’s about a fascinating session I was able to attend at this conference I’m attending for work, and what I observed.

This particular session was a discussion about female protagonists in case studies used in the classroom for graduate management education. Or more accurately, the lack of female protagonists. Graduate business programs often heavily utilize these cases to teach concepts across their curricula, but very few of them mention women at all- even if they are present, it’s even less likely that the woman is in a leadership position, and even LESS likely that they speak to another woman at any point. And it’s overwhelmingly likely that women are featured in “pink industries” such as cosmetics. So these programs are trying to teach their students how to be leaders, but 40% (roughly the percentage of women in many programs, which is rising) go through their classes without seeing anyone like them succeeding.

I don’t think any of this is really a surprise. Frustrating and disappointing, yes. A surprise, no. But that’s not what I want to talk about. I want to talk about what I expected in the room, and what I observed.

First of all, I expected this session to be packed to the gills. Given the #MeToo visibility and current climate, I expected that anyone in a position to effect change would be desperate for information and the opportunity to brainstorm solutions. But that wasn’t the case at all. While there was a decent turnout, there were plenty of empty chairs in the moderately-sized room. I would argue (and have already spoken to some conference organizers about this) that this should not have been a breakout session- in the future it should be one of the main discussions held in the main ballroom, with everyone in attendance. This is a conversation that requires everyone’s participation. Cultures and climates cannot change in a vacuum.

I also expected there to be very few men in attendance. I was semi-right on this. I’d say about 25% of the room was male. Given that there were more men than women at this conference, this certainly was not a representative sample of the population- but not surprising. In fact, it was a little higher than I had expected.

When talking about goals for female representation in case studies, I expected the goal to be about 50%. After all, women are half the population and will (hopefully) make up half the classroom in the not-too-distant future. Not so. I heard 3 men say that 30% “would be hard enough to achieve.” I understand that change doesn’t happen overnight and there’s a considerable workload to updating course materials, but I was blown away that they so casually dismissed the possibility of even trying to achieve an equal balance.

I then observed the conversations taking place. I observed one of the co-panelists (a middle-aged white man) refer to complaining as “bitching,” I observed the same man share 3 stories on how supportive he is of these efforts, and I observed that 4 men spoke about 80% of the words spoken in total in that session.

So we have a session about the need for more equal female representation. And these guys were so busy telling us what allies they are that they left almost no time for the female co-panelist to actually share the results of the research her foundation has done.

I know these men had good intentions and do genuinely want to help make lasting changes in their programs. None of this was maliciously done. It was simply lacking in awareness that they had completely hijacked the conversation and proved the point of why exactly these changes are necessary. It was the most frustratingly ironic thing I’ve seen in a long time. It’s a perfect case study (about case studies).

The cure for this is increased awareness. It’s making sure that this conversation keeps happening and is visible and can grow and evolve. It’s getting people in positions of influence to join the conversation and then DOING something about it. I’m planning to be one of those influential people one day, and you can bet this will be top of mind.