Section X: Harvard’s Secret Society

To help erase the academic gap between men and women at Harvard, female students were taught how to raise their hands more aggressively in class. Professors were made aware of the gap, caused in part by their own calling patterns in courses where half the grade is based on class participation. The school added stenographers to classes so professors would be less biased in calling on students in class discussions and software to show professors the distribution of their grades by gender.


“You weren’t supposed to talk about it in open company,” the NYT quoted Kathleen L. McGinn, a professor who supervised a student study that revealed the grade gap. “It was a dirty secret that wasn’t discussed.”

All of these changes clearly had an impact. Nearly 40% of the Baker Scholars, the highest honor awarded a graduating student at HBS, in the Class of 2013 were women, a percentage that was far in excess of the percentage of women in the class itself.

Not surprisingly, the article is generating a good deal of commentary on the Times website, most of it negative publicity for the school. Grads from rival schools are using the piece to contend they didn’t go to Harvard but choose a competing school for the reasons cited in the article. Other school alumni contend they rarely, if ever, have seen similar behavior on their campuses. One anonymous poster, saying she is an HBS graduate based in Boston who worked in private equity, acknowledged being “voted the woman our section would most like to see naked.” She added: “It was considered a compliment.”


One commenter, describing herself as a Harvard student wrote, “My girlfriend and I saw vastly different cultures at Harvard’s different schools. We took classes at the Law School and at HBS, as guest students from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government (where the mission is to try to help make the world a better place; shucks). We were revolted by the materialistic, macho atmosphere at HBS. Neither of us hates business, or business schools, but HBS is without peer when it comes to elitist, starry-eyed kids lusting after titan-of-the-world status. ”

Countered a current HBS student: “I feel this article falls sadly short. Are many issues outlined here true? Yes. Is this article an accurate portrayal of life at HBS? Resoundingly, no. Over the past year, I have found unspeakable support and community here; it is a place where classmates astonish me with compassion for others. It is also a place where I see some of the most impressive and accomplished women actively participating in every class. Surely HBS grapples with gender and status issues. Surely wealthy students can afford a lifestyle that others cannot. However, the administration continues to wrestle with these issues. And in no small way. The community at HBS makes our experience unforgettable and one that I will be desperately sad to leave. This place is not without fault, but it is inextricably good, and I cannot understand how the NYT so sadly missed that.”

Still, many commenters faulted Harvard Business School’s admission policies for admitting candidates more likely to have a Section X mindset. “A super-elite program like Harvard has a number of foreign men from super-rich families who are there to get a credential and to party,” noted John D. in Chicago. “It also has a number of women who are there to husband hunt. Remove these people from the equation and the problem would disappear. What Harvard needs is not more women who can ‘lean in.’ It really needs to do a better job at screening applicants, with less of a focus on giving slots to the rich, famous and beautiful.”


About The Author

John A. Byrne is the founder and editor-in-chief of C-Change Media, publishers of Poets&Quants and four other higher education websites. He has authored or co-authored more than ten books, including two New York Times bestsellers. John is the former executive editor of Businessweek, editor-in-chief of Businessweek. com, editor-in-chief of Fast Company, and the creator of the first regularly published rankings of business schools. As the co-founder of CentreCourt MBA Festivals, he hopes to meet you at the next MBA event in-person or online.