Section X: Harvard’s Secret Society

Harvard Business School

Harvard Business School

Would you get your MBA from a business school where:

A secret society of ultra-wealthy, mostly male, mostly international students is called Section X and known for decadent parties and travel.

Men commandeered classroom discussions and hazed female students and younger faculty members. They openly ruminated on whom they would “kill, sleep with or marry” (in cruder terms).

Women were more likely to be sized up on how they look and some dressed up as Playboy bunnies at social parties.

One student lived in a penthouse apartment at the Mandarin Oriental hotel in Boston.

A former female McKinsey consultant publicly admits to taking a mid-term marketing exam when she was hung over and getting a grade that was a “disaster.”


These are just a few of the assertions in a New York Times article published today (Sept. 8) on the Harvard Business School. The lengthy front page story with a jump to two full inside pages by Harvard Law School dropout Jodi Kantor describes what it calls an experiment by Harvard to give itself “a gender makeover, changing its curriculum, rules and social rituals to foster female success.” It is based on interviews with “more than 70 professors, administrators and students.”

Truth is, there is little new in the article. In fact, regular readers of Poets&Quants will have read much of what the Times is reporting in a series of articles written over the past two years:

Concern Over Harvard Business School’s ‘Mad Men’ Culture in April of 2012

Why Men Outperform Women At Harvard Business School in April of 2011

Sheryl Sandberg Congrats HBS For Closing Academic Gap in April of 2013

Indeed, in an interview with Poets&Quants last year, Dean Nitin Nohria directly addressed the issues at length. His interest in the school’s gender challenges occurred well before he became dean when the Women’s Student Association discovered that proportionally more men than women receive academic honors at Harvard and that has been the case for many years. Nohria called for a study of the issue and of student culture generally to get to the bottom of the problem.

“We wondered whether this was happening because we are engaging in some rare form of affirmative action, that the quality of the women we were admitting was not good,”  Nohria told P&Q. “That turns out to be absolutely not true. Whether you measure by test scores, GPA, the quality of work experience, whatever metric you can think of, the quality of our men and women are comparable. But we tested that. We didn’t say that as a matter of faith.

“It was not a question of selection,” he added. “It was subtle things that were happening: the calling patterns of faculty members, women not leaning forward to get more attention, women feeling anxious about being too smart and feeling less desirable. There was this likability and competence tradeoff that women suffer much more than men. There is a lot of research that shows it is harder for a woman to be both well liked and competent than it is for a man. So when it comes to women, we tend to see them as either competent but not likable or likeable but not competent. We have a harder time placing them in the category of being both, and women intuitively understand that and therefore sometimes may have been saying that at Harvard Business School I want to be liked so I don’t want to be the person who is the smartest in the class. Men didn’t have that issue.”

Nohria also did not shy away from confronting another sticky issue that emerged last year when a female MBA student disclosed an off campus sexual assault that involved “unwanted groping” of her breasts. The incident was part of a broader pattern of Mad Men-like behavior at HBS, including excessive drinking and behavior that many would consider sexual harassment. One female first-year student had been informed that the men in her section had voted her to have “the second best rack”  (see Concern Over HBS’ ‘Man Men’ Culture).

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