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The Stereotypes in MBA Case Studies


Stereotypes are often reinforced by the words we choose to use. For example, when researchers recently analyzed massive text datasets, they found that in the 1910s, Asians in the U.S. were often characterized by words like “barbaric” or “monstrous” while descriptors like “passive” and “sensitive” are more common today.

We see stereotypical word choices play out in the workplace. Job ads for professional roles are often peppered with stereotypically masculine words. Research from the Women’s Leadership Lab reveals that stereotypes also affect how managers write performance reviews and talk about people in talent reviews. These patterns have consequences. Word choices reinforce often inaccurate stereotypes about gender, race, national origin, age or other status characteristics, creating disadvantages when those stereotypes do not align with markers of success.

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. We already know from the work of Lesley Symons and Herminia Ibarra that women protagonists are not only scarce (only 9% of cases feature female protagonists), but that they show up in primarily “pink” industries or roles, are typically the only woman in the case, and are not described as in depth as their male counterparts. And while researchers have endeavored since then to write more diverse case studies featuring women protagonists (see the HBS Gender Initiative list of such cases here), we wondered if the portrayal of women and protagonists from other underrepresented groups has changed over time. Further, we wanted to examine whether case writers draw from stereotypical language to describe these protagonists.