The case method has been the dominant teaching style for graduate business education for the last hundred years, first at Harvard Business School and thereafter at most elite B-schools. But lately, cases have come under fire for not keeping up with the times — and for misrepresenting the times they do intend to reflect. Cases are under the microscope “for several serious moral failures, accused by various critics of ‘constructing mythical, heroic portrayals of leadership’ and ‘privileging senior management views and managerialism,’” wrote critic Lila MacLellan last fall in Quartz. They have been said to “exclude the voices of women, the poor, and labor, and to contain ‘a flawed logic of translatability from one context to others.’”
At Harvard Business School, where the vast majority of case studies are written and sold, Black American protagonists are badly underrepresented. Steven Rogers, who taught at HBS as a senior lecturer until last year, has noted that less than 1% of the case studies published by Harvard and used in business school and corporate classrooms around the world feature a Black protagonist (see Former Harvard Business School Prof Slams Dean For School’s ‘Systematic Anti-Black Practices‘). Even worse, only two of the roughly 300 case studies taught to first-year MBA students in the required curriculum had an African-American protagonist. Bottom line: The case against cases is strong.
Last fall — well before the reawakening of racial unrest fueled by the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis — Kellie McElhaney and Genevieve Smith were having their own struggles with the case method, and their own epiphanies about its value to business education. McElhaney, founder of the Center for Equity, Gender and Leadership (EGAL) at the University of California-Berkeley and a teaching professor at the Haas School of Business, and Smith, associate director of EGAL, were looking for prototypes to inform a pair of cases they were writing, one on the pay gap at Gap Inc. and the other about the work culture at Boston Consulting Group. But there were no prototypes to be found.
Later, discussing the white male slant of cases at an EGAL meeting, a board member’s comment stuck with McElhaney. “One of our investors, who was an MBA student many years ago, said she couldn’t remember any case in which there was anything other than white males,” McElhaney tells Poets&Quants. “And so we just started out by having somebody do a scan of cases out there that had at least some diverse protagonists.
“You think you’re going to do a little job and then you realize it’s huge.”
CREATING THE EGAL CASE COMPENDIUM
The daunting scale of the problem was quickly apparent. Harvard publishes hundreds of cases annually; its directory of more than 19,000 is the source of an estimated 80% of cases used in B-schools globally. Case studies are also big business. In 2019, HBS’s publishing arm made a record $262 million, more than a quarter of the school’s total income, largely through publishing new cases. (That income has been curtailed in 2020 by the coronavirus pandemic.) The school publishes about 350 new cases every year to add to a stock of around 7,500; annually it sells millions of copies globally.
Yet in all those cases, Smith, McElhaney, and EGAL Research Assistant Diana Chavez-Varela, who earned her bachelor’s in political economy from UC-Berkeley in 2019, estimate that only around 1% include a Black person as a protagonist, the same percentage founded by Rogers, and just 9% have a female protagonist. EGAL also found a common focus on lower-level employees, with more than half (55%) of the cases about diversity, equity, and inclusion centered on entry- and mid-level employees, and only 15% focused on senior leadership. Advancing women in the workplace, moreover, was a far more common theme than issues focused on race, ethnicity, or other identities.
The majority of the primary authors (those listed first) are male, Smith and Chavez-Varela found: 55.35%. The majority of diverse protagonist case studies (67.91%) are male, too.
“I think we realized as we started this project, it’s not just around diverse protagonists, though that is obviously really important,” Smith says. “There’s different research that shows that having protagonists that reflect who you are increases confidence levels within the classroom, and just generally beyond the classroom as well. There really is a lack of cases that reflect the diversity, equity, and inclusion that are so real in businesses today. So that really spurred us to identify what cases do exist that we can help point faculty to, to fill some of these gaps within core courses, as well as other courses across Haas.”
The EGAL team wrote a report based on their findings, released this summer. But they went further. Collecting cases from more than 20 leading publishers, they created a master list of more than 400 cases with diverse protagonists. The EGAL Case Compendium is a spreadsheet with 215 cases with diverse protagonists and 215 cases specific to diversity, equity, and inclusion topics — and it’s free for any Haas or other B-school instructors to use.
‘YOU CAN’T BE WHAT YOU CAN’T SEE’
In a 2018 Financial Times story on criticism of the case method, Steven Shugin, a professor in marketing at the University of Florida’s College of Business Administration, argued for replacing both the writing and Socratic-style teaching of cases with the scientific method — arguing, in other words, for a method of rigorously testing theories rather than one based on historic events in a single company.
“I’m not saying the case has no value but it is not generalizable,” Shugin told the FT. “So many cases highlighted the best companies of the 1980s like Kodak, which had gone out of business by the 1990s.” He pointed to a series of HBS cases of “innovative” Enron financial transactions — since superseded by ones on the ethics raised by its collapse. “Teaching,” he said, “should keep students up with current thinking.”
Current thinking has come a long way in the areas of diversity and inclusion, McElhaney says.
“We can get really heady as academicians, but there’s an adage that ‘You can’t be what you can’t see.’ It’s pretty straight-up social psychology, not really complicated,” she says. “So if we’re only ever showing white men in positions of power — you can’t be what you can’t see. Here we are as a school, putting all these resources into trying to become more diverse, and yet our primary teaching tool is, in and of itself, not diverse.
“It’s just kind of a straight-up problem. And I’ll own this more as a professor. I have been a professor since 1997. And I have heard a proliferation of reasons why faculty won’t try new things in the classroom or try new cases. And it is often because, they say, if it’s not broken, don’t fix it. Or put another way, there is no better case. I think what we are trying to show is, it’s possible there is more than one option out there, something other than the one that you’ve been using for 10 years.
“As a professor who uses cases, I know that switching costs are high. It takes a lot of work on my end to learn the case, to teach it well, to make sure that it gets across the point I’m trying to make. But I didn’t want to let faculty off the hook for that sort of a simplistic response.”
‘LOWERING THE BAR’?
One of the biggest problems with outdated cases and case-writing is not a lack of representation but misrepresentation — of under-represented minorities as well as women. “The misrepresentation is more of a perpetuating of stereotypes,” McElhaney says, “such as always putting women in positions of HR or marketing or executive assistant.” EGAL found that 84% of cases with diverse protagonists focused on HR and had primarily white women as protagonists. Some disciplines are nonexistent, Smith says, while stereotypical business roles and positions are predominant.
“There is one case around the rare African-American venture capitalist, and it was written by a white male author,” she says. “Or there was another case that kind of seemed to equate diversity to less quality, which perpetuates the narrative that diversity and inclusion initiatives mean you’re going to be lowering the quality bar.
“Of the diverse protagonists cases, almost 70% of the authors were male, which again, is part of the issue in itself. And it reflects the lens that’s being used.”
Comments or questions about this article? Email us.