Impact Stories
Pam Fischer, Darden MBA

How a Student-Led Initiative Helped Diversify Darden’s Case-Based Curriculum

At the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business, the professors don’t lecture. Instead, MBA students develop their leadership skills by reading and discussing case studies. Students are encouraged to put themselves in the situation and mindset of each case protagonist — a task that’s easier when they can relate to the featured business leader.

Pam Fischer was in her first year at Darden when she and other women noticed how few of the cases they were studying featured women. She remembers thinking, “Most of the case protagonists seem to be men — in particular, white men from the United States. While this might have been the business environment of 20 years ago, it isn’t the one of the future, or probably even of our class.”

While few MBA programs focus entirely on case-based teaching like Darden, the case method is prevalent in at least some limited form in most MBA programs. This suggests that students all over the world may have noticed the same thing as Pam and her classmates.

Building a Case for Diverse Case Protagonists

Pam was elected VP of Academics for Graduate Women in Business at Darden in April 2020. As part of her new role and based on her observations, she launched a case audit. Pam worked with other student leaders and a team of about 15 case reviewers to take a closer look at all 300 cases they were assigned in the core classes of their first year. They documented each case protagonist’s gender, race, ethnicity, seniority level, and more, and then analyzed that data.

When they were ready to present their findings, the case audit leaders scheduled a Zoom meeting with key professors. Jared Harris, the Samuel L. Slover Research Associate Professor of Business Administration at Darden, was one of the course heads reviewing the results. He says, “I’ve written a number of cases for both ethics and strategy courses, many of which include women protagonists. This is an important issue, and I consider myself an ally.”

Jared was looking forward to the meeting about the case audit, but when the students presented their data, he was surprised to learn of the dismal representation of female protagonists in the Strategy course he leads. While he has authored a number of cases with diverse protagonist representation, he was surprised, he told Forté, “how easy it is to lose sight of how other changes — curricular decisions driven by other considerations — can inadvertently diminish diverse representation if you aren’t paying attention to that issue.”

A Commitment to Change

With an effort to replace or update half of the course’s cases already underway, Jared committed on the spot to become part of the solution instead. He told Pam and the other case audit leaders, “I’ll tell you what I’m going to do. I’ve got seven new cases coming, which will be a turnover of 50% of the cases in Strategy, and every single one of them is going to have a female protagonist. That’s a promise.”

If you put your mind to it, and try to figure out how to how to do this, it doesn’t have to be that hard.

While faculty case writers often worry that adding more diversity to cases might seem gratuitous, Pam and her team provided guidance on how to include diverse protagonists, and Jared took their advice and led the charge. For example, a case study doesn’t have to focus on the CEO. Jared explained, “You can find women executives who are in a COO role or are running a business unit. These women have a lot of operational responsibility.” Furthermore, the fact that these senior executives still have to report to the CEO makes the case more interesting.

Jared followed through on his promise, creating a set of new cases centering on women business leaders, and he made the case protagonists more ethnically and internationally diverse at the same time. He said, “If you put your mind to it, and try to figure out how to how to do this, it doesn’t have to be that hard.”

Diverse Case Protagonists Make a Difference

Jared didn’t call attention to the new case protagonists in class directly, but his students noticed. Pam said, “We heard directly from first-year women that they felt more represented in Jared’s class. There is still a great deal of work to be done, but the feedback from the first-year class was quite different and more positive than the feedback from our class.”

One of those students was Nwanneoma Ngonadi, a dual degree student from Canada who is earning her MBA while also enrolled in UVA’s medical school. As the only person of color in her section at Darden, she was used to reading cases focused on white men. When Jared introduced cases featuring women in leadership roles, she noticed right away. She said, “I finally felt like ‘This is why I’m at Darden.’ I can see myself in in any one of these roles.”

After meeting with the professor about something else, she mentioned the case protagonists. She said, “All of a sudden, I’m seeing women in our cases — regular women who are killing it. I don’t know if it was deliberate, but thank you to whoever made this happen.”

I finally felt like ‘This is why I’m at Darden.’ I can see myself in in any one of these roles.

Scott Beardsley, Darden’s dean, is sponsoring an initiative called Women at Darden, which aims to make Darden the most attractive business school for women. A committee of alumni, professors, students, and faculty are working together, and they have taken on the case protagonist work as one of their core priorities for the next two years.

Darden is one of Forté’s MBA partners and we are excited for their efforts. We’ve engaged Pam to document her audit process so that we can share it with all of our business school partners as they undertake their own journeys to create even more inclusive classrooms.

Forté has also partnered with The Case for Women, MBA Roundtable, and Emerald Publishing on a case-writing competition to encourage the development of high-quality case studies that feature real women in leadership roles.

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