The Case for Female Protagonists

Bridging the Gender Gap in Business Education

featuring Colleen AmmermanAnne Trumbore, and Lilian Ajayi-Ore

Business school course materials often don’t reflect the growing diversity of leadership across many industries today. Hear from three leading females in higher education on why this gap matters, and learn how professors and business schools can highlight a variety of leadership voices.

Although leadership today is increasingly diverse across many industries, and the percentage of MBA candidates who are women is now over 40%, the course materials used in business schools often do not reflect this diversity. Colleen Ammerman, Director of the Gender Initiative at Harvard Business School, notes, “Female protagonists remain decidedly in the minority, both at HBS and across business education.”

For instance, in a recent study reported by the Financial Times, a PhD student at the University of Cambridge found that of the 35 cases used by the business school’s MBA tutors, half had no mention of female executives. Further, of the cases that did mention such leaders, 43% featured women who led companies in “pink” industries such as fashion, food, and homeware. In another analysis, only 7 of 53 cases had female protagonists, as reported by FT, and all seven involved women in “pink” sectors.

Why the Gender Gap Matters

This gap has consequences. In case teaching, students are introduced to many businesses and business leaders, and they are asked to put themselves in the shoes of the protagonist. Cases “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,” says Ammerman. “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 also reinforces stereotypes about who ‘real leaders’ are.” 

Consequently, women’s leadership development is hampered when students do not see female leaders. Anne Trumbore, Senior Director of Wharton Online at The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, concurs that it is more difficult for women, even those accepted into top business schools, to envision themselves as the CEO of a Fortune 500 company when they do not read cases that feature female CEOs. 

Trumbore, who has worked at several Silicon Valley startups, notes, “It’s one of many signals women receive that we don’t get the top job. We’re not the professor. We’re not the CEO. Because it’s not shown to us that it’s a viable path. We’re told we should get there, but it’s like saying, ‘Somehow get to California. Here’s $20 and no Google Map.’”

“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 also reinforces stereotypes about who ‘real leaders’ are.”

—Colleen Ammerman

Research supports these observations. Studies have shown that female students who hear about successful women benefit in several ways:

  • They have better self-perceptions and are more confident. Students in a 2005 University of Iowa study who read biographies of women in a profession they planned to enter rated themselves more highly on career-related characteristics like intelligence and competence.
  • They perform better. For instance, in the same study, students read biographical essays about successful women in various occupations before they completed a series of math questions. The women who did not read any biographies scored worse than men on the test; in contrast, women who read three biographies of successful women scored as well as men.
  • Similarly, a 2013 study found that women students who were exposed to a portrait of a female leader (Hillary Clinton or Angela Merkel) gave longer and better-quality speeches (as rated by themselves and their peers) than women exposed to a portrait of Bill Clinton or no portrait at all.
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What Professors Can Do to Bridge the Gap

First, like many organizations that are calling for a 50/50 gender balance, professors can strive for a more diverse balance of protagonists in the course materials they use. “When you think about this idea of 50/50—making sure that women hold 50% of leadership roles and 50% of executive board seats—it makes sense that this idea is reflected in our reading materials,” says Lilian Ajayi-Ore, a university faculty member teaching global marketing and web analytics at New York University’s School of Professional Studies.

“In order to address inequality in our society, we need to show successful examples of how women lead well, and really subvert any other historical ideology around the roles of women so that we can create a society in which women are seen to be just as valuable as men,” says Ajayi-Ore, who is also the founder and executive director of the Global Connections for Women Foundation, which focuses on the areas of gender equality, women empowerment, and youth empowerment. “Whether it’s a case study or article that we’re reading, or a simulation that we’re playing, those examples allow for the opportunity to change the perception.”


The Gender Initiative at HBS launched a case collection in 2018 that curates cases with female protagonists. All the cases have teaching notes and the collection is updated regularly to ensure that it’s a helpful resource for instructors teaching a range of courses.

Second, the infrastructure for incorporating diversity into the classroom needs to be developed at all levels—by individual faculty members, their departments, and entire business schools. Good intentions are not enough: Even when business schools try to have more parity in the composition of their classes and ensure equal opportunities for all students, Trumbore says, “I don’t know that professors are really considering what that means for teaching. And there certainly aren’t incentives for them to do it.” 

“Whether it’s a case study or article that we’re reading, or a simulation that we’re playing, those examples allow for the opportunity to change the perception.” 

—Lilian Ajayi-Ore

Trumbore suggests the need for more socialization and data around the issue. “Because right now, the criteria for a professor in selecting a case is around ‘What am I teaching and what concept from my class is this case going to illustrate?’ They are not thinking about it from this additional lens of what model of behaviors does this show the class,” she says. “It’s just accepted. I don’t think most realize what a boy’s club it is, and even if they do recognize it, they likely don’t recognize what effect that might have on the female MBA candidates. It’s never been surfaced.”

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Professors should pay attention to how they can introduce distinctive voices in their courses, she says. In particular, they need to look critically at their course syllabi through the lens of this parity—and look for cases that add diversity across multiple dimensions, such as female leaders in a variety of industries who employ different leadership styles. To facilitate conversations about both gender and race, they can also search for teaching notes that address these issues.

There are other creative ways to get students to interact with a broader array of leaders. Adding innovative materials to course syllabi, such as live cases and experiential learning activities featuring companies with female owners or executives, is a great way to increase engagement in the classroom.

These initiatives are not about pushing a “female agenda,” says Ajayi-Ore. “Questions like ‘How does a female leader run an organization?’ and ‘What challenges do women leaders face?’ are important for learning,” she says. “But getting at what kind of leader our students want to be is why we are driving particular concepts in case studies.” 

An array of voices will result in enriched learning opportunities and learning capabilities for students to address leadership styles and leadership types, she says. “The goal of an educator is to help students discover what type of leadership they need in these situations—in a crisis, in an expansion situation, in a highly stakeholder-driven organization—and how these individuals, male and female, are addressing that. If there’s not equity in the resources and a focus on female leadership, then there’s not going to be enough holistic opportunity to cover all leadership types, regardless of their agenda.”

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Posted June 25, 2019


Cammerman protrait

Colleen Ammerman is director of the Gender Initiative at Harvard Business School. She works with faculty leadership to support the research and dissemination of practice-relevant insights for advancing equity, diversity, and inclusion in organizations. She is a member of the Life & Leadership After HBS research team and is currently writing a book manuscript about gender and career in the 21st century.

Trumbone portrait

Anne Trumbore is senior director of Wharton Online at The Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania. She formerly taught and designed curricula for online environments at Stanford University, and she has also pioneered the design and implementation of online courses at NovoEd and Coursera.

Ajayi-Ore portrait

Lilian Ajayi-Ore is a university faculty member at New York University School of Professional Studies teaching digital marketing, interactive marketing, and data analytics. She is also a digital marketing strategist and big data analytics executive with over 16 years of industry expertise helping brands and organizations identify key market trends and implement marketing strategies.


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