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Rotman's blunder is a case study in what's wrong with case studies

No more Legally Blonde references please

Reese Witherspoon in Legally Blonde (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios Inc.)

It’s just a light-hearted class assignment, right? That’s what you might think about the coursework that drew complaints of sexism from students at Rotman MBA School this week. At issue was an assignment that examined the plight of a ditzy MBA student who’s just been offered a job with her “favourite company of all time,” Tiffany & Co. The job sounds great, but she can’t decide which compensation package to take, so while she dreams of “all the little turquoise boxes” that will soon collect on her shelves, her Yale-educated fiancé Chip helps her work through the math. (Our plucky student isn’t completely hapless with numbers—she rhymes off a few tax figures in a snippet of dialogue quoted in a Toronto Star report on this story, but gets distracted by thoughts of designer footwear.)

The fictional student’s name is Elle Forest, and if that moniker, and this fictional scenario, makes you think of Elle Woods, the clueless lead character in the Reese Witherspoon hit movie Legally Blonde, that’s probably deliberate. But does that make spoofing stereotypes in business school coursework okay? Not according to recent research. Several new studies  offer good reasons why professors and business schools should be thinking long and hard about how women are represented—and about how to play with stereotypes in ways that are constructive rather than alienating.

If female business leaders were already frequently depicted in MBA assignments and course studies, and in a broad range of roles —as CEOs, for instance, or working in the capital market jobs that Elle Forest appears to dismiss as boring—this sort of lighthearted exercise might not raise eyebrows. But women are vastly underrepresented. An examination of case studies produced by Harvard Business School—one of the most prodigious distributors of MBA materials—showed that while women represent 41% of Harvard’s MBA class, only 9% of the school’s studies feature women in leading roles. A separate look at award-winning business school cases conducted by Lesley Symons, a graduate of the INSEAD business school, found that women were entirely absent from 45% of them. Furthermore, most studies that did feature a woman gave them little more than a passing mention. I had to read some of them five times to even notice that a woman had been included, says Symons. Only about 9% showed women in a leadership role.

SPECIAL REPORT: Women in a changing workplace »

The study also found that the women worked in “pink” industries (fashion and family-focused businesses, typically) or pink departments within companies (PR and HR, rather than operations or finance) and that if a woman was featured, she was typically the only female employee represented. Female characters were also described with less detail and at less length than male protagonists.

“The lack of women role models is an important source of “second generation gender bias”—practices and patterns that appear gender neutral but inadvertently benefit men while putting women at a disadvantage, Symons wrote in a post for Harvard Business Review. Case studies perpetuate old-school stereotypes, she says, by perpetuating the idea that men are at the centre of business. “Showing only one model of leadership implicitly signals to both men and women that women are not suited for leadership, and deprives both of alternative role models for different ways of leading and developing a leadership identity.”

But what about a class assignment that some might argue is trying to poke fun at stereotypes? It may backfire and simply reinforce the outmoded ideas, according to a piece published this month in the New York Times by Facebook COO and Lean In author Sheryl Sandberg and Wharton professor Adam Grant. The two authors examined research that suggests that acknowledging widely held stereotypes can actually lead to greater stereotyping.

Their account of one such study: They told one group of participants that gender stereotypes were common while telling a second group they were rare. Researchers then asked the groups to state their perceptions of women. Those who’d been told that stereotypes were common “rated women as significantly less career-oriented and more family-oriented. Even when instructed to ‘try to avoid thinking about others in such a manner,’ people still viewed women more traditionally after reading that a vast majority held stereotypes.”

To eliminate this bias, course materials and case studies need to encourage readers to correct the stereotypes—an element that appears to have been missing from the Rotman assignment. Wharton prof Grant describes presenting data in his classes on the underrepresentation of women in major leadership roles on campus. He thought that presenting the data, and discussing the factors that held women back, might encourage them to seek out key positions, but during the next five months, there was no change in the percentage of female MBA students applying for leadership positions. A year later, he taught the same class but added this sentence: “I don’t ever want to see this happen again.” Within five months, Wharton saw a 65% spike in the number of women vying for leadership positions.

The authors’ conclusion: “To motivate women at work, we need to be explicit about our disapproval of the leadership imbalance as well as our support for female leaders.”

Rotman’s official response to its campus brouhaha doesn’t go that far, but it does state the school’s commitment to diversity. “We deeply regret issuing the assignment and are committed to an inclusive culture at the Rotman School where all students can reach their full potential,” spokesman Ken McGuffin said in a statement yesterday. “The Rotman School has a broader priority of building a diverse, welcoming, and inclusive environment for women. Enhancing the experience for all students is a key imperative in the Vision for the Rotman School being articulated by the new dean.”

If you need one more reason why female stereotypes in coursework are a bad idea, try to imagine a case study featuring a clueless man who’s too busy dreaming about his soft-top Porsche 911 to sweat the numbers on his compensation package. Didn’t think you could.