Women as Protagonists in Management Case Studies
Dr. Debapratim Purkayastha
In December 2014, The Rotman School courted controversy for a ‘sexist’ case study taught in a capital markets class. This incident reignited the debate on how women are portrayed in case studies used in management education. Lesley Symons, who has done research in this area, says, “I not only found few women presented as leaders, but also, where women are mentioned, they are depicted from low paid and exploited communities.”

In the case study given as class assignment at The Rotman School, the fictional female character is portrayed as someone who needs help from her boyfriend to evaluate job compensation packages. “Of course, the protagonist’s gender is not often critical to the outcome of a case. However, this is about the underlying message that is given by not having female protagonists in cases: women are invisible. This is a form of second generation bias, where practices and patterns that appear gender neutral inadvertently benefit men while putting women at a disadvantage,” says Lesley. “Because women are invisible, this inadvertently communicates that they are not business leaders; there are no female role models and this unconsciously tells men and women that women don’t lead. It becomes the norm that leaders are always men.”

Females may have been poorly represented in management case studies, and only a few case studies have a female as the protagonist, however, we also feel that educators may not be picking up some of the excellent cases that are already there.  A case in point is about Kari Warberg Block and her entrepreneurial journey. Kari founded Earth-Kind which manufactured and sold a totally agriculture-based rodent repellant. She had won many awards in recognition of her achievement in running an environmentally and socially responsible business. This award-winning case also highlights how women entrepreneurs have the unique ability to combine compassion and caring with business acumen to become successful leaders.

Another case is on PepsiCo’s Chairman and CEO, Indra K. Nooyi. The case describes Nooyi's rapid rise from a middle class background in India, her exposure to the US, and the difficulties faced by her. It shows how she took on challenging assignments early in her career and had the good fortune to be mentored before taking on the top job at PepsiCo. She pushed the organization in the direction of her vision of 'Performance with a Purpose' in which changes were made in the working style and culture of PepsiCo. The case brings out the various leadership styles of Nooyi that make her a hybrid leader – servant leadership, ethical leadership, socialized charismatic leadership, and authentic leadership.

Then there is this case on Irene B.Rosenfeld, CEO of US-based snack-food company Kraft Foods Inc. The case study discusses how she turned around and transformed Kraft into a global consumer food behemoth. Since taking up the position of CEO in 2006, Rosenfeld had fundamentally changed the footprint and prospects of Kraft. She repositioned the company to deliver top tier growth by revamping some iconic brands, transforming the product portfolio, and consolidating the company's presence in developing markets. In February 2010, Rosenfeld successfully led the Cadbury acquisition to make Kraft a market leader in the global confectionery market. A 29-year veteran of the food industry, Rosenfeld was successful in bringing about a transformational change at Kraft.

Yet another case is about Ursula M. Burns (Burns), CEO of US-based Xerox Corporation, one of the largest business process and document management companies in the world. Burns is the first African American woman to lead such a large publicly traded company and also features in the list of world's most influential woman CEOs. The case focuses on Burns's journey and her ascent to the top post at Xerox. Analysts noted that Burns had not only broken the glass ceiling but also proved herself as a good role model due to her leadership style. According to the Xerox veteran of more than 30 years, her perspective came from being an engineer and a New York black woman. Over the years, Burns developed a reputation at the company as a technologically focused, customer-oriented change agent. The case discusses how Burns steered Xerox through turbulent times and changed the course of the company. According to experts, she responded to a crisis and led Xerox through many stages of transition. She turned Xerox around to meet revenue goals and restructured parts of the business to boost sales.

We will introduce you to more such stories about female leaders in our upcoming posts. Till then, please let us know your thoughts on this issue. And we also welcome your comments and feedback of using these cases.

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