WSA Doubles Down on Case Protagonists

Are enough female business leaders depicted pondering their next business move in HBS cases? The Women’s Student Association and Dean Nitin Nohria agree: absolutely not.

The WSA, HBS’s largest student club, operates with the mission to “prepare HBS women for long-term success and actively foster a campus culture that encourages students of all genders to thrive.” A key component of our mission is to ensure that all students are given equal opportunity to succeed academically. The WSA fosters academic success by establishing effective support systems, such as the annual Class Participation Workshop and semi-annual Final Review Sessions. We also share student feedback with the HBS administration about the academic curriculum. For example, the WSA facilitated feedback on last year’s “vignette” sessions, which helped inform positive changes that were made this year.

Over the past year, a new discussion about gender equality at HBS has emerged: Why don’t more cases feature female protagonists? This issue received national attention in January when Dean Nohria publicly announced his goal to more than double the number of HBS cases that feature female protagonists, building from 9% to 20% over the next five years. While some might consider doubling the percentage to be an aggressive target, others counter that even 20% is still far from representative of the current HBS classroom (over 40% female) and the current levels of women in managerial occupations (around 51%).

The WSA is committed to helping HBS meet this target and has made increasing the number of female case protagonists one of its primary initiatives. In the coming months, we will map the current state of the case writing process, identify the barriers to sourcing and writing cases with female protagonists, develop recommendations for the administration, and create new roles within the WSA to sustain this effort.

In the spirit of Dean Nohria’s strategy to use “sunlight as the best disinfectant,” the WSA started to
investigate the current state of case writing and curriculum development by focusing on the RC year, which impacts every HBS student. We looked through all cases distributed to the MBA Class of 2015 thus far and found that 25% of all protagonists featured include female case protagonists (taking into account that some cases feature more than one protagonist).


Interestingly, the overall coverage in the RC is higher than the Dean’s goal. However, the numbers still fall short of real world representation of students and managers, and the percentages vary widely between units, from 40% in LEAD to 0% in Strategy. In our discussions with RC Course Heads, we found that the units that have made a conscious effort to create cases with female protagonists have been successful. Those that haven’t historically tracked this metric ended up with the lowest number, providing more evidence to Drucker’s assertion that “if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.”

There is promising news here, though— our faculty leadership can be successful in including more
female protagonists in their courses by shedding light on the issue and measuring their performance from year to year. In our discussions with RC Course Heads, we also learned that increasing the number of female protagonists can be accomplished without impacting the quality of the curriculum: while some staples like Snapple and Erik Peterson may not be swapped out anytime soon, there are dozens of concepts in RC courses that faculty feel could be just as easily taught using one protagonist as another, assuming the fundamental lessons are still present in the protagonist’s situation. For example, a current case teaching WACC could be swapped for an updated case teaching the same concept, but with a newer company and, ideally, a female protagonist.

There are also a number of changes to the current case writing process that could help increase the number of cases written that feature women. While the WSA is still preparing final recommendations, initial ideas include:
– Developing a database of concepts Course Heads are willing to replace, and pairing those needs
with students interested in case writing through an IP (independent project)
– Assisting HBS’s Centralized Case Writing & Research Group in sourcing more female business
leaders who could be featured in a case
– Improving communications between the WSA and Course Heads to ensure professors have the
opportunity to network with female leaders speaking on campus to uncover case opportunities
– Creating an annual faculty award for academic units that write the most new cases featuring
women or that include the highest percentage of female case protagonists in class

The WSA is excited to help the HBS administration and faculty ensure that all students have female role models to learn from in the classroom. We also recognize that women are not the only
underrepresented group within HBS cases, and we are excited that many other student groups on
campus are working to make our learning experience more reflective of the diversity contained within our student body.

We are also challenged to figure out the “right” target for female case protagonists. Is increasing the total number of female protagonists to 20% enough? What should the target for cases selected for RC courses be? We welcome your feedback and ideas as we aspire to change one of the most important influences on our academic experience and on the curricula of business school students around the world. Sam Ellner, Kelly Luckasevic, and the entire WSA leadership welcome your thoughts.