Getting Down To Cases

WHEN HER FATHER and his business partner both died suddenly in the same month, Victoria Jackson was just 22 years old and about to graduate from college. She quickly junked plans for a career in fashion and took control of their Nashville diesel-parts distribution company. Jackson earned her M.B.A. from Vanderbilt on the weekends and then, based on a B-school paper she wrote, expanded the business into manufacturing. Within six years, the company had doubled its revenues and leaped into the top five in its field.

Jackson's is the sort of story that might inspire and instruct young businesswomen. But they won't learn about it in America's business schools. While most M.B.A. courses are based on real-life case studies, few include tales of women in prominent roles. Jackson, now 42, recalls that during her entire two-year M.B.A. program, only a single case featured women--and they were production-line workers dubbed ""the girls.'' While the number of women in senior management has swelled by some 60 percent in the past decade, gains in the boardroom have yet to penetrate the classroom. The few cases involving women, while not as overtly sexist as the one Jackson encountered, have still tended toward the stereotypical, centering on executives at companies such as Mary Kay Cosmetics and Tupperware.

Now an elite group of women business leaders wants B-schools to break their own glass ceiling. The Committee of 200 (C200), which Jackson chairs, plans to donate half a million dollars to Harvard Business School to develop more women-centered case studies. The committee, named 15 years ago in the hope that there might one day be 200 top female execs, now boasts 380 members. An antidote to the old boys' club, C200 has focused on networking and mentoring. But Marjorie Alfus, a former Kmart executive, wanted a more formal effort. She donated $250,000, matched by C200, to launch the case-study initiative. When Harvard kicked in $500,000, the project had a $1 million imprimatur.

Despite the handsome dowry, the marriage of C200 and the famed business school seemed a strange match. Harvard's B-school has a dismal record on women's issues and is hardly in need of C200's money. ""If Harvard had really wanted to focus on this, then they could have done it,'' admits C200 administrator Anna Lloyd. And C200 has a history of successful alliances with other, more progressive schools like Columbia and Simmons. But the group couldn't pass up Harvard's prestige and its reach; it peddles more than 5 million case studies a year to schools around the world. ""This is a legacy,'' says Jackson.

Harvard's legacy from the deal may be a badly needed image makeover. The B-school gave tenure to its first female professor in 1962--but didn't do so for another woman until 1980. Recent efforts to hire more female faculty and to host seminars on women's issues haven't turned things around. Female enrollment has stubbornly remained below 30 percent, even while it has climbed above 37 percent at rival Columbia. ""It's really a marketing challenge,'' says Harvard Business School Dean Kim Clark.

Clark concedes that Harvard's previous efforts to revamp its case studies have been ad hoc. Myra Hart, a founder of the Staples office-supply chain and a Harvard assistant professor who will coordinate the new program, relies on a handful of women-centered case studies in her entrepreneurship classes. One tells the story of Monique Maddy, an HBS grad who set up a new phone system in Tanzania. ""I want to make sure my students see women like them, a few years out, being successful,'' says Hart. She now plans to tap the women of C200 for their experiences, which could hit classrooms next semester.

Still, not everyone is dazzled by the new alliance. ""It's about time Harvard discovered women,'' says Pat O'Brien, dean of the Simmons Graduate School of Management in Boston, an all-women's M.B.A. program founded 23 years ago by two female professors who fled sexism at Harvard. Simmons's own library of 100 cases all feature women--a collection that, ironically, was funded with seed money from Harvard. O'Brien, who had also vied for the C200 grant, worries that new cases won't have much impact in an environment that's fundamentally not congenial to women.

That's hardly Harvard's problem alone. While women's enrollment has reached parity with men's at law and medical schools, it still lags far behind in M.B.A. programs. At the University of Michigan Business School, which is undertaking a major study of the problem, Dean B. Joseph White cautions that ""just adding women and stirring will not produce change.'' Maybe not, but any recipe for change has to begin with the right ingredients.

Getting Down To Cases | News