The Case of the Missing Women

‘Think manager – think male’ is the unspoken mantra that still pervades business education, says Lesley Symons in her recently published thesis, Where are the Women Leaders?

‘My experience as a student at INSEAD first alerted me to this issue,’ says Lesley. Although we had almost 50/50 women to men on my course, the cases for the eight modules all featured men in business except one, which was about a young MBA student doubting herself. My first female professor appeared on Module five.’


The evidence Lesley presents is hard to dispute. Basing her studies on The Case Centre’s award-winning cases over the past five years, Lesley found that of 53 award-winning and bestselling cases:

  • women are protagonists in seven of the 53 cases
  • of those seven, two were originally male but presented as women in the final versions
  • of the few female protagonists, all are depicted in traditionally ‘female’ sectors such as fashion, food or home-related
  • The lead writer of 46 of the 53 cases is male.

The Symons Test

Lesley adapted the Bechdel Test to analyse the cases. The Bechdel Test is used to measure the active presence of female characters in Hollywood films. The test is:

“One, it has to have at least two women in it, who, Two, talk to each other about, Three, something besides a man.”

Lesley renamed her version the Symons Test, with the rule being that a case:

“(1) has to have one woman in it; (2) in a leadership position (the protagonist in this research); (3) who talks to another woman about the business”

Just three of the cases analysed by Lesley passed the Symons Test. An interactive graphic on Lesley’sHarvard Business Review blog post illustrates the point with links to the cases.

The three that pass the Symons Test are:

Vital role

Lesley notes in her thesis that gender balance at middle and senior levels in organisations is currently a hot topic. The 2011 European Business School and European Commission Call to Action Report states that business schools have a vital role to play in shattering the glass ceiling. The report recommended that business schools could help by increasing men’s awareness of gender issues by revising teaching materials and using more cases about women leaders.


women in casesAnd in an unprecedented move earlier this year, Harvard Business School Dean, Nitin Nohria, apologised for how the school had treated women in the past. He told an alumni audience: ‘The school owed you better, and I promise it will be better.’ He also pledged to double the number of business case studies that feature a woman as the protagonist to 20% over the next five years.

Underlying messages

‘Of course, the protagonist’s gender is not often critical to the outcome of a case,’ says Lesley. ‘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.

‘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.’

'Competent but less likeable'

‘In most cultures, men and leadership are synonymous and the ideal leader is firm and decisive, while women are expected to be nice and caring’ says Lesley.

‘There is a mismatch between what society expects of women and what it expects of leaders. Research shows that when women are in male dominated environments, they can display leadership attribute that are “male” in order to fit in and become “invisible”. They are then deemed competent but less likeable than their male counterparts.

A double bind

‘This leads women into a “double bind”: when women act like men to display the masculine characteristics and traits associated with leadership, they are not liked; but when they are softer, displaying stereotypical female traits, they are liked but not seen as competent.

‘I believe that case studies should show a range of different attributes for leadership that encompasses both male and female attributes.’

Mixed reactions

‘The majority of reactions to my research have been really positive,’ says Lesley.

‘It is seen as new and innovative. However, when speaking more deeply about the research, I generally received different reactions from women and men.Women have enthused and believe it’s a really important piece of research, although some have been upset by it because at the time of doing their MBA, they didn’t notice the lack of women in cases. Now it’s been highlighted, they feel embarrassed and a little ashamed they didn’t spot it earlier.

‘Most men’s reactions have been quite different. Their first reaction was, why would I be looking at this? And secondly, does it matter? Comments have also been made that I might possibly have a problem with men, and at times, their initial comments were almost uniformly negative. But some men did agree that it was a great idea for research.’