Section X: Harvard’s Secret Society

1As part of the school’s leadership development exercises, the school began a session devoted to the incidents and asked student leaders to facilitate the conversations. “We have been more willing to explicitly confront this issue than anybody else,” says Nohria. “Are we at a place where our culture is fully inclusive? No. We have work to do but with great determination we are working on every piece of this.

But this latest story is in The New York Times and there is much shock value in the way the article was written and is presented. At one point, an unidentified male student is quoted in the article saying that much of what had occurred at the school these past two years had “been a painful experience.” But an accompanying video shows that the comment was made in jest and could not be interpreted as a serious response. The upshot: The overall impression many readers get is negative when, in fact, the school administration has taken a highly pro-active role in stamping down a male-dominated culture that came to be intimidating to many women.


According to the Times reporter, the men at the top of the male hierarchy at Harvard Business School most typically work in finance, drive expensive luxury cars and advertise “lavish weekend getaways on Instagram. Some belong to Section X, an “on-again-off-again secret society of ultra-wealthy, mostly male, mostly international students known for decadent parties and travel. One commenter on the story noted that Section X is largely composed of about 100 MBA students from South America, the Middle East and Asia, out of a total enrollment of more than 1,800, and was a group of mainly Princeton undergrads “most of whom were making up for the fact that they did not have a ‘college experience.'”

The Times said that even though Section X is hard to pin down — some students said they did not believe it existed at all — it is a source of significant resentment on campus. Every HBS class is organized into 10 sections labeled A through J, and the name Section X implies a pulling away from the wider community. “The Section X dynamics really deteriorate the section togetherness,” said Kate Lewis, a 2013 graduate who edited the school newspaper, in an interview with the Times. “By the end of this academic year, Section X had become an adjective on campus for anything exclusive and moneyed, with one student talking about a “mini Section X dynamic” within her real section,” according to the Times.

“Women were more likely to be sized up on how they looked…Many of them dressed as if Marc Jacobs were staging a photo shoot in a Technology and Operations Management Class. Judging from comments from male friends about other women (‘She’s kind of hot, but she’s so assertive’,”…some feared that seeming too ambitious could hurt what she half-jokingly called her ‘social cap,’ referring to capitalization.”

“Someone made the decision for me that I’m not pretty or wealthy enough to be in Section X,” said Brooke Boyarsky, at the time a first-year MBA Class of 2013 MBA at Harvard. She told her classmates this at a discussion about sexual harassment. “Until then, no one else had publicly said ‘Section X.” They organize “the real parties, the parties where it’s a really limited list, the extravagant vacations — I mean really extravagant,” she told the Times.


According to the Times, the room quickly came alive. “The students said they felt overwhelmed by the wealth that coursed through the school, the way it seemed to shape every aspect of social life–who joined activities that cost hundreds of dollars, who was invited to the parties hosted by the student living in a penthouse apartment at the Mandarin Oriental hotel in Boston. Some students would never have to seek work at all–they were at Harvard to learn to invest their families’ fortunes–and others were borrowing thousands of dollars a year just to keep up socially.”

The Times reported that one student, Neda Navab, who had been a McKinsey & Co. consultant, admitted to taking a mid-term marketing exam hung over and her score was a disaster. Some male students, many with finance backgrounds, commandeered classroom discussions and hazed female students and younger faculty members, and openly ruminated on whom they would “kill, sleep with or marry” (in cruder terms). Alcohol-soaked social events could be worse.”