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Do MBA Case Studies Reinforce Stereotypes?

Do MBA Case Studies Reinforce Stereotypes?

There are more stereotypes in MBA case studies than you might think, a new study finds.

The Harvard Business Review analyzed 249 case studies taught in Stanford’s MBA core curriculum from 2015-2017 and scanned for potentially stereotypical language patterns in the descriptions of the protagonists, their situations, and the cultural context.

“Based on our experience teaching in MBA programs, we suspected that similar word choices and stereotypes were playing out in the materials used in these programs,” authors Sarah A. Soule, Davina Drabkin, and Lori Mackenzie write.


In their study, the authors analyze case studies to find generalized statements about a country’s culture that don’t offer context data or specific examples.

For instance, in the Benihana of Tokyo, the authors found the following statement:

“…the rapidity with which [Japanese chefs in the U.S.] could rise in the American Benihana operation versus the rather rigid hierarchy based on class, age, and education they would face in Japan.”

What’s wrong with that? Well for one, according to the authors, it’s a rather broad statement that doesn’t follow up with factual examples.

“This is an assumption based on stereotypes (which also further reinforces those stereotypes) instead of offering relevant examples of ‘rigid hierarchy’ and how they might impact chefs in Japan,” the authors write.


The authors also found examples of stereotypes in descriptions of consumer behavior.

In Cialis: A Segmentation and Targeting Dilemma, the study reads that erectile dysfunction “…can lead to additional psychological effects, such as a reduction in feeling masculine and close to one’s partner. Over 90% of men and women reported that confidence in a man’s sexual ability is critical to having a good love relationship.”

“While the studies may have shown a reduction in feeling masculine, the statement, as written, reinforces the stereotype that a man’s sexual ability is and should be important to his sense of masculinity,” the authors write.

In other studies, authors found examples of reinforcing gender stereotypes.

For instance, in Heidi Roizen, the study reads:

“She’s fun, she likes to smile, and she’s really interesting. If you met her outside of a work setting when she was with her kids, you would probably think, ‘Now that’s a nice mom,’ and you wouldn’t realize you had been talking with a captain of industry.”

The problem with that statement, according to the authors, is that it both reinforces stereotypes that women are ‘communal’ and pits a ‘nice mom’ against a ‘captain of industry.’


Stereotypes are inherent in a number of case studies. But, as the authors state, how can we challenge these stereotypes to be more aware of them and teach awareness to students?

For one, the authors suggest, it’s important for professors to conduct an audit of the language used in case studies.

“When choosing cases to teach, review the language used carefully,” the authors write. “Pay particular attention to the descriptions of cultures, protagonists, and consumer behavior or market segmentation. You may not be able — or want — to completely avoid cases with problematic language but if you’re aware that it exists, you can help students learn from it.”

It can also help to teach students to identify stereotypes.

“Write a cover letter with advice on how to catch these patterns and ask students to underline any potentially problematic language and be prepared to discuss how it affected their assessment of the protagonists, consumers, or the situation,” the authors write. “Use the questions below to lead a discussion about the negative effects of these stereotypes. For any cases you’ve written, consider offering the cover letter to faculty teaching the cases.”

While these lessons can be useful in the classroom, the authors also suggest that they can be applied to all aspects of education.

“By weeding out stereotypical patterns and rewriting the language of leadership, we can start to create change, one small and important step at a time,” the authors write.

Sources: Harvard Business Review, Stanford Graduate School of Business