The Seven Biggest Revelations In the NYTimes Opus On Harvard Business School

Sexy pirates! Nip slips! And an exclusive society called Section X!

Yesterday’s page one story in The New York Times was an epic glimpse inside the annals of one of Boston’s most powerful institutions: Harvard Business School. According to the piece, reporter Jodi Kantor interviewed more than 70 faculty, administrators, and students to better understand the social experiment that the class of 2013 unwittingly entered into at the beginning of their program. These students were part of planned “gender makeover,” one that President Drew Gilpin Faust orchestrated in part in respond to longstanding concerns about gender bias within HBS’s hallowed halls.

The problem, in short, was that while female students were admitted with the same test scores as men, they would often find themselves falling behind because they failed to aggressively engage in class discussions (in some cases, class participation can account for as much as 50 percent of their grades). Female faculty, meanwhile, had awful retention rates; between 2006 and 2007, one-third of the female faculty left their positions. So a new dean, Nitin Nohria, was asked to bolster female performance throughout the school, and he did so by instituting hand-raising seminars, placing stenographers in classrooms, and providing detailed teaching critiques to female professors after every class.

The story looks at how these efforts ended up making some big changes in how both students and faculty performed while acknowledging that there’s was no guarantee that these lessons would actually have an impact on the real world. As Kantor writes:

As faculty members pointed out, the more exquisitely gender-sensitive the school environment became, the less resemblance it bore to the real business world. “Are we trying to change the world 900 students at a time, or are we preparing students for the world in which they are about to go?” a female professor asked.

You can (and should) read the piece in its entirety for a better understanding of the machinations of the makeover. But let’s not forget that the story in and of itself is a romp through the privileged corners of American power. So let’s pick out some of the juiciest tidbits, shall we?

1. There is a Secret Society called Section X that is so secret that most people don’t refer to it out loud:

The men at the top of the heap worked in finance, drove luxury cars and advertised lavish weekend getaways on Instagram, many students observed in interviews. Some belonged to the so-called Section X, an on-again-off-again secret society of ultrawealthy, mostly male, mostly international students known for decadent parties and travel.

It should come as no surprise that HBS has a caste system of sorts, but the name itself is just perfect. If I were a betting woman, I’d guess that some screenwriters were working overtime last night to ensure that their pitches will be the first in the door at Hollywood studios this morning.

2. Harvard Business School students were upset they couldn’t wear Halloween costumes to class:

As Halloween approached, some students planned to wear costumes to class, but at the last minute Ms. Frei, who wanted to set a serious tone and head off the potential for sexy pirate costumes, sent a note out prohibiting it, provoking more eye rolls.

Is it just me, or did the fun in wearing Halloween costumes during daylight hours in public end shortly after recess in the 6th grade? It isn’t clear why these future captains of industry, many of whom hope to be financed by their professors if their business ideas pan out, would want to undermine that by wearing sexy pirate garb.

3. The douche contingent at HBS isn’t afraid to assert itself:

Judging from comments from male friends about other women (“She’s kind of hot, but she’s so assertive”), Ms. Navab feared that seeming too ambitious could hurt what she half-jokingly called her “social cap,” referring to capitalization.

Remember ladies, no boy will like you if you’re bossy.

4. At least one female professor at HBS is petrified of nip slips:

“As a female faculty member, you are in an incredibly hostile teaching environment, and they do nothing to protect you,” said one woman who left without tenure. A current teacher said she was so afraid of a “wardrobe malfunction” that she wore only custom suits in class, her tops invisibly secured to her skin with double-sided tape.

One imagines that the working environment at Harvard is extremely intense, no matter what gender you are. But the story’s depiction of  male students makes piranhas look like fuzzy bunnies, so willing were they to jump all over a professor’s any weakness. It’s not hard to see how a little double-sided tape—or maybe a shot of whiskey—might be a necessary confidence boost.

5. Mentoring isn’t always what you think it’s going to be at HBS:

At an extracurricular presentation the year before, a female student asked William Boyce, a cofounder of Highland Capital Partners, a venture capital firm, for advice for women who wanted to go into his field. “Don’t,” he laughed, according to several students present. Male partners did not want them there, he continued, and he was doing them a favor by warning them.

The story goes on to explain that many women walked out of the session in protest, and Boyce denies making the comment. But seriously? If you’re told, even in jest, not to enter a major sector of the business economy while you’re sitting in a classroom in one of the most powerful business schools in the world, something is absolutely wrong.

6. Women, even at HBS, can have bawdy sexual jokes, too:

Students were demanding more women on the faculty, a request the deans were struggling to fulfill. And they did not know what to do about developments like female students dressing as Playboy bunnies for parties and taking up the same sexual rating games as men. “At each turn, questions come up that we’ve never thought about before,” Nitin Nohria, the new dean, said in an interview.

Say what you will about the Playboy buddy aspect of this paragraph (for my thoughts, see the aforementioned sexy pirate issue above), but it seems that HBS deans were clutching their pearls at the thought of women playing the very same “kill, sleep with or marry” games (to borrow the Times’ parlance as we all know what it really is) as men. Perhaps it’d be nice to recognize that when we talk about making sure that women are powerful in the workforce, let’s also acknowledge that they’re sexually aware, cognizant human beings at the same time.

7. Some male HBS students would rather squirrel away their social capital than engage in a sexual harassment seminar:

“I’d like to be candid, but I paid half a million dollars to come here,” another man said in an interview, counting his lost wages. “I could blow up my network with one wrong comment.” The men were not insensitive, they said; they just considered the discussion a poor investment of their carefully hoarded social capital.

Those men, who are being groomed to become business leaders, are not confident enough to speak openly about gender bias and sexual harassment in a forum that was designed specifically to … make them feel comfortable discussing gender bias and sexual harassment. This might just be the most telling statement in the entire piece, and it demonstrates that HBS still has a long way to go.