HBS’s apology misses the mark

or why 250 female-headed cases won’t change the world

By Michelle Kweder, a UMass Boston student on the Organizations and Social Change track of the PhD in Business Administration.  This is reposted from her blog Bricolage. Twitter: @MichelleKweder

Harvard Business School (HBS) Dean Nitin Nohria apparently made an “extraordinary public apology” at a glitzy ballroom in San Francisco for HBS’s bad behavior towards women as outlined September 2013 New York Times article “Harvard Business School Case Study:  Gender Equity.”  Nohria’s goal of doubling the percentage of women who appear as protagonists in Harvard Business Publishing (HBP) cases in the next five years is lackluster if not meaningless.

Apparently HBP cases account for 80% of cases studied in business schools globally. The last time I checked the online case database included 10,148 (December 2013) HBS/HBP cases.  (Note: HBP also disseminates cases from similar collections such as Darden and Ivey.)  Without a doubt, HBP/HBS is the thought leader and standard bearer in what I call mainstream graduate management education (MGME).

So let’s do some math.  If 9% of the protagonists in the current cases are women that comes to a total of 913 existing female-headed cases; 20% of 10,148 is 2030 for a difference of 1117.  Harvard plans on producing 250 cases a year for the next 5 years for a total of 1250 with 20% being 250.  So, if Dean Nohria is talking about achieving equity in the existing case collection, that would require producing 1367 cases with women as protagonists in the next five years.  My guess is that this isn’t what is happening.  The Dean is asking us to forgive the past, ignore the present bookshelf, and be satisfied with 250 new female-headed cases by 2016.  (My solution: Why not devote the entire five years to producing 1250 cases with protagonists about women and top it off with the remaining 117 cases being written about protagonists with genders that go beyond the binary and/or written in ways that are not gendered.  Let’s just hold on the male-headed cases for a bit.)

But really, this is the tip of the iceberg.  From the sample of cases that I have closely studied (n=23, subjects include poverty and HIV/AIDS) and the many more that I was exposed to as a bschool student and graduate assistant, I can pretty safely say that most are pretty formulaic.  Dropping in a female protagonist isn’t going to change the damaging lessons of neoliberal capitalism and American exceptionalism that cases routinely teach and re-teach in the ideology producing world of MGME.

HBS offers indicators that they have succeeded at “this” before by citing their efforts in globalizing their case collection.  Reporter John A Byrne writes that now 57% of Harvard’s cases are international, up 52% in just five years.   Yet, my limited experience shows that “international” can often mean a high-class version of the White Savior Industrial Complex (Teju Cole) where the Harvard affiliated (white, male) hero-leader sweeps in to save the day in an emerging economy populated by “the other” (who often represent an out-sourced working class or a “bottom-of-the-pyramid” consuming class or, increasingly, both).

For example, in Spar & Barlett’s 2005 case entitled “Life, Death, and Property Rights:  The Pharmaceutical Industry Faces AIDS in Africa” the presumably b-school trained, solution-providing, profit-entitled executives see a market while never hearing the voices of Africans dying from AIDS:

These were firms, after all, that spent millions of dollars on research and development; firms that often spent years, or decades, perfecting the treatments they discovered.  In their home markets, these firms were protected by patent systems that enabled them to recover the development costs of their drugs.  They were not simply going to turn around and distribute their product for free.  Moreover, the patents protected the Western pharmaceutical firms were part of a broader system of intellectual property rights…If the pharmaceutical companies relented in the face of Africa’s epidemic, they risked denting the entire global structure of intellectual property rights.  For if drugs were free — or cheap, or copied–in Africa, why not books or music or software?  Indeed why stop in Africa?  There were poor people everywhere, and millions who were dying from AIDS.”  (Spar & Bartlett, 2005: 2) (emphasis added)

This case, like most HBS/HBP cases and like most US-based graduate management education, misses the point that just because profit (and, in the case of big pharma incredibly high profit when compared to other industries) is possible does not make it ethical to maximize profit at the expense of justice, human rights, or life. US organizational leaders make choices every day – and these cases are supposed to help business people make good, solid, justifiable decisions.  Not only do these cases fail to fairly represent women (who, by the way Dean  Nohria, often self-identify in complex, intersectional ways that include and supersede categories of gender identity, race, ethnicity, ability, class, sexuality, and politic) they fail to represent the numerous possibilities of change, justice, and ethical choices such as trading profit for intra-organizational income equality, affirming benefits (paid time off; child and elder care; green transportation subsidies, education benefits, etc.), and philanthropic purposes.

Harvard, you can do better.

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