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Sexist Case Study Dogs Rotman

Benjamin Edelman has apparently found company on the business school hall of shame.

This week, Harvard haters reveled in Edelman lecturing a small business owner, threatening fire-and-brimstone over a $4 overcharge. While Edelman’s email blowup was rooted in nanny state paternalism, Rotman‘s Ken Womack’s sin was based on something altogether different: Sexism.

In a capital markets course, students were treated to a case study featuring a bubble-headed MBA wrestling with dueling compensation packages. Sound harmless so far?

Well, what if I told you this ditzy protagonist was female? That’s insensitivity.

What if this graduate’s favorite company was Tiffany Jewelry. That’s called bad judgment.

Now, let’s say this MBA needed her Yale Law-educated boyfriend to explain the options to her? That’s stupidity.

To add insult to injury, let’s include that the woman zones out during her boyfriend’s explanation, “dreaming of that pair of Louboutins.”

Oh, boy. There goes the neighborhood.

Ah, welcome to the (mis)adventures of Elle Forest (not to be confused with Legally Blonde’s Elle Woods). Like Woods, Forest is depicted as vapid, needy, and materialistic. You’d almost expect the case study to include a Chihuahua in her designer purse. While Legally Blonde never pretended to be anything more than a comedy trading in stereotype, this case study actually took itself seriously. Call Elle Forest a Carrie Bradshaw without a column (or a clue). Heck, Forest even aspired to marry in the Hamptons and live on the Upper East Side. No clichés there, right?

Alas, the case study’s author missed the Forest for the trees, creating a hullabaloo at Rotman. Thankfully, these victimized students weren’t marching the streets, chanting “Heels off, bigots down.” But there was unrest nonetheless, requiring Dean Tiff Macklem to issue an apology. “The assignment unfortunately did not reflect the standards and commitment to diversity that are core beliefs at the Rotman School.”

Thankfully, this incident happened in Toronto. At Berkeley, administrators would call for a ritual sacrifice at the feet of some eco-feminist deity. At Columbia, classes would be cancelled so students could work out the trauma with grief counselors. In Canada, they simply examine what happened and move on…or so you’d think.

So who was the culprit? Well, don’t expect Professor Ken Womack to take responsibility. He claimed the study was written by a teaching assistant (Academic Rule 1: When in doubt, blame the TA). In other words, when faced with the choice of being painted as a hack writer or a lazy delegator, Womack picked the latter (a path likely pursued by 99.9 percent of academics, no doubt). Mercifully, the author didn’t make Forest a graduate of Schulich (Talk about causing a real uproar).

Of course, the story didn’t end there. With more business schools touting transparency and accountability, you’d expect an open discussion on the topic, right? Not exactly. While Womack apologized for the assignment, he also discouraged the class from talking to the media (too late). In other words, as one student told the Toronto Star, the school seemed more concerned about the brand than the lesson. “I don’t think that’s what healthy communities do. Rotman actually does do a million things to enhance women. This could be an opportunity for the institution to talk about that but, again, for whatever reason it’s been ‘clam up — form a defensive position.’ ” Talk about a true business lesson! When trouble comes around, circle the wagon, blame outsiders, and punish inside ‘agitators.’ You won’t find that in the canon. Perhaps Womack should’ve assigned a case study on Enron, instead.

So what are some takeaways from this? For starters, maybe schools should think twice about deviating from Harvard case studies, despite the jacked up fees. Second, perhaps business schools should raise their standards, as I doubt that Forest could even get into a third tier program (let alone land an $85K PR job with the choice of a $20K signing bonus or stock options). Third, case study writers should incorporate more realistic scenarios (If Forest was Canadian, wouldn’t designer boots weather the elements better than Louboutins? Wouldn’t a vainglorious shoe hoarder be dating a HBS grad over a do-gooder Yalie? Most important: Would a boyfriend even need to remind his MBA girlfriend to look at her finance notes for answers?).

In all seriousness, storytelling is in vogue. But here’s the lesson: Know your audience. MBAs are among the most accomplished, diverse, and thoughtful students you’ll find in any graduate program. If you’re going to write for them, write to their experience and intellect.


Sources: Toronto Star, Toronto Star

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