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Harvard Business School's 'Woman Problem'

News of sexual harassment of female students by male classmates surfaced recently at Harvard Business School. Is the HBS administration to blame for not disciplining such behavior in the past?
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Frat-house atmosphere pervades nation's top business school, students say

On June 4, when members of Harvard Business School's class of 1998 file across the platform to receive the Most Powerful Degree in the World, only 24% of the graduates will be female. That's the lowest percentage of women any HBS class has had since the mid-1980s and lower than that of any other leading business school. But the gender imbalance won't be the most glaring manifestation of what has come to be known simply as Harvard Business School's "woman problem." At least one student will also be missing from the procession.

The student, a man, is one of six who were disciplined in early April for harassing their female classmates during their first year at the B-school. All were members of Section G, one of the 80-student units in which first-years take all their classes. Among other infractions, the men were found to have passed women lewd and sexually explicit notes. Some of those were among a packet of notes given to Inc. anonymously. "You look delicious presenting your shareholder argument. Come over here so I can lick you!" one note read.

A second: "Your pants today are hypnotic and I find myself strangely attracted to them. I'm going to pretend to drop my pen to get a closer look. While I'm bent over I'd love for you to rub my bald spot--it would be worth a lot to me."

And another: "I have to admit, I'm having nasty thoughts right now, and you figure prominently in them. What do you say we go and get a stall in the men's bathroom after the session and undertake our own 'review' session?"

Students say that class visitors, such as friends and family members of students, were frequent recipients of such notes. Acknowledges one male student in the section, "If you were attractive and you came to our section, it was pretty likely that you got a note."

On April 7, more than a year after some of the events in question took place, the school handed down sanctions to six of the note writers. (All the disciplined students contacted by Inc. declined to comment.) All six were required to apologize to the HBS community as a condition of graduating. In addition, some were asked to perform community service and to undergo counseling about sexual harassment. At least one of the students was told he wouldn't be allowed to cross the platform at graduation ceremonies, though he would still receive his diploma.

"In the real world, people would be fired for this sort of behavior," says Karin Kissane, a 1997 HBS graduate who was copresident of the Women's Student Association. "You are doing students a disservice not to provide a realistic environment in which men and women can learn about business decorum. We're pleased to see that the administration has taken this to heart."

The episode has thrown the business school into full spin control. On the Thursday before students disbanded for Easter and Passover weekend, HBS dean Kim Clark issued a memo announcing that "a small group of students in the section" were being punished for what he later termed "salacious" behavior. According to the HBS student newspaper, the Harbus News, the memo was released to preempt reporting by Inc., which had been investigating the issue for more than a week at the time. (An administration spokesperson denies that the memo was released for that reason but confirms that the school supplied a copy of it to the Boston Globe, which ran Clark's comments the next day.)

But the "small group of students" story left many insiders shaking their heads, as conversations with dozens of students, alumni, and faculty have made clear. They say that those students' behavior, while certainly inappropriate, was all too typical of the fraternity-house atmosphere that has come to pervade the world's top training ground for business leaders. "They made it sound like it [Section G] was a deviation from the norm, which really made me angry," says one female student. Echoes a woman from that Section G class: "It's not a case of a few bad apples."

Some go so far as to suggest that the six punished students are being made scapegoats by a school administration with a history of unresponsiveness to the harassment issue. "There's a constant blizzard of these notes being passed around every section," says one faculty member. "Punishing these students is like picking six snowflakes out of a snowstorm and prosecuting them for ruining the driveway."

Like one of the business school's famous case studies, the episode has thrown the spotlight on the school's handling of thorny issues of gender and behavioral standards. But more than that, it has raised broader questions about what sort of business leaders are being groomed for tomorrow's boardrooms.

An ivy-covered portal to the upper echelons of the business world, Harvard Business School arguably sets the tone of American business like no other institution. Its alumni account for roughly 20% of the top three officers at Fortune 500 companies, and one-third or so of its graduates are running their own businesses within 15 years of graduation. Because the tenor set within the school's walls has such rippling implications for the business world at large, it's of no small significance when, as one female alum puts it, "word on the street is that Harvard isn't a great place for women."

To wit: a survey conducted last year by a Harvard task force found that HBS women perceived their own school to be less woman-friendly than rival business schools. Behind those findings, some say, isn't so much a sexual-harassment problem per se as a more general decline in standards--the sort of standards that were sorely lacking when students in the class of 1992, at a black-tie HBS event at the New England Aquarium, decided to jump into the penguin pool. Or when students a few years back brought a belly dancer into the classroom. Says one female alum: "Every time I think of HBS, it makes me upset because of that kind of thing."

"This kind of behavior isn't something that came out of the blue, that just appeared last year," concedes Dean Clark, as the ping of tennis rackets from the B-school courts sounds outside his office window. "There have been situations of some sort for years." Among the more than two dozen that were reported to Inc.:

  • A male student in the class of 1994 was quietly reprimanded for a pattern of conduct toward a young female professor (witnesses can't remember if he addressed her as "honey" or "sweetums") and was sentenced to write a case study about gender issues. The student, who now lives and works abroad, says he was explicitly instructed not to speak of the incident by James Cash, then the head of the M.B.A. program. Cash did not return Inc.'s phone calls.
  • When a female professor played for her class what she thought was a video on leadership, she found that students had replaced it with a lewd video of their own making.
  • In early 1994 a group of students spiced up a finance class with a game of "strip finance": each time certain financial phrases were invoked, participants removed an article of clothing. Several male students ended up bare-chested.

Considering the age of the average HBS student (27) and the extent of the average student's work experience (four years), the alleged behavior is especially startling to some, if not for its offensiveness, then for its sheer juvenile quality. Asked why the school's classroom climate may have deteriorated, one member of the faculty offers, "People hear what students before them got away with, and they feel they need to live up to the deeds of their predecessors."

Meanwhile, many women quietly seethe, says Julie Bornstein, a 1997 graduate. Recalls a woman from the class of 1992: "My section was terrible. It was just outrageous. The boys are passing notes saying, 'The woman professor looks like she didn't get laid last night.' And you're told these are people you need to associate with to get ahead in business."

Another recent graduate recounts how, during a discussion of a case study about Black & Decker power tools, one man illustrated his point with a comparison to male genitalia. Other men quickly picked up the "tool" metaphor and expanded upon it. "By the end of the class, there had probably been 10 or 15 comments like that," she says. "The women just stopped talking. There were no hands in the air. It was just the worst classroom experience I've ever had. I sat there, mouth open, amazed that the professor didn't stop them."

A faculty that's still ensconced in an old-boy mentality, several women suggest, may be part of the problem: when one student spoke in class about customers "getting screwed," one woman recounts, the professor chimed in with a comment about "lying back and taking it." (Of the B-school's 93 tenured faculty, 11 are women.) And several students from last year's Section G claim that one male assistant professor seemed to actively encourage the passing of notes, occasionally reading them aloud. "If these guys [students] have no negative feedback," asks another female alumnus, "how are they supposed to learn?"

Similar questions linger over the Section G matter. For starters, school officials are at pains to explain why they took so long to act.

Kim Clark suggests that the administration had been unaware of the extent of the problem. "If you compare what the case turned out to be with what we first knew," he says, "it turned out to be quite different." Yet as early as March 24 of last year, Robert Dolan, a professor who supervised a group of sections that included Section G, sent an E-mail to students acknowledging "actions which constitute harassment of fellow students, faculty, or visitors to our classrooms." He wrote: "Some of you have spoken to me about specific incidents, so I know this is a very real phenomenon...."

Indeed, at least one woman in Section G quietly had begun to collect lurid notes as they circulated about the classroom. In what may have been a culminating incident, say three sources familiar with it, another woman complained that a man in the section grabbed her buttocks while at Shad Hall, the school's athletic facility.

Shortly after that incident, the same woman student tearfully exploded before the section and demanded that the notes stop. According to several students who were present, she threatened to leak some of the offending notes to the press if the situation was not remedied. (She did not make good on her threat and declined to speak with Inc. for this article.) No faculty members were present at the time, but the woman also brought her complaint to members of the administration on more than one occasion, several sources familiar with the events say.

Meanwhile, Mark Tatum, student president of Section G, made a halting attempt to lead the section in a discussion of the issue. But the meeting quickly erupted in confrontation, several students say. "The meeting ended in no resolution," recalls a male student in the section who supported the women's charges.

Tatum says he then decided to seek help from the administration. He met with Dolan, Professor Lynda Applegate, and administration staffer Patricia Light, asking them, he says, to intervene in the situation. But no significant action resulted from that meeting, Tatum confirms, other than Dolan's March 24 E-mail and a similar one from Applegate. "It was disappointing," says Tatum, who says he believed Section G's problems were emblematic of a larger, "schoolwide" problem. (Dolan claims he did not broach the subject directly with members of Section G because Tatum told him he wanted to handle the matter among the students in the section.)

"If anyone had ever been pulled aside by the administration, the note passing would have stopped," says a student intimately involved with the case. "It never happened."

Last year may not have been the first year that such problems arose in Section G, either. A woman in the previous year's Section G claims she collected samples of offensive notes and forwarded them to a faculty member, Janice Hammond. (Hammond, whom several students identified as the strongest faculty advocate of women's issues on campus, declined to comment.) And when members of that "old" Section G made a presentation to the "new G" (the incoming first-years) in the fall of 1996--a raucous HBS tradition in which section lore is passed down from class to class--the presenters made references to sodomy and repeatedly referred to women as "bitches," according to the recollections of four people who were present.

After classes had ended for the year, Professor Steven Wheelwright, the head of the M.B.A. program, and Janice McCormick, a staff member of the administration, sent students a letter expressing consternation about "certain behaviors that have occurred in Section G during the past academic year....Reports include vulgar notes and 'top ten lists' about individual students and visitors passed during classes...[and] the creation of an inhospitable environment for women in the section."

With those words and the end-of-year disbanding of Section G--which included Harvard University president Neil Rudenstine's son, Nicholas--there the issue seemed to die.

Many students were puzzled, then, when the school's Faculty and Staff Standards Committee (FSSC), an in-house jury of six professors and administrators, began questioning students and collecting evidence on the case in January of this year. Several students were subjected to handwriting tests.

Why the sudden prosecutorial zeal? Dean Clark says that, in part, the administration had discovered a loophole in the school's disciplinary procedures. Initially, he explains, the administration had believed that only the women could bring charges against their harassers, meaning they'd be put in the uncomfortable position of having to go public with their so-far informal complaints. The women were reluctant to do so. But then, says Clark, "we hit on this idea of letting the FSSC itself bring the complaint." At the same time, Clark says, the school's disciplinary procedures had been "in a transitional kind of period" in which one system was being phased out and another introduced.

One faculty member dismisses that explanation as disingenuous: the new disciplinary system had already been used expeditiously last year, this professor points out, to expel a student for plagiarism. "It suggests an institution that was just hoping the issue would blow over."

In Massachusetts, individuals cannot sue an educational institution for sexual harassment unless they file an administrative complaint within six months. (At press time, an HBS spokesperson said that no suit had been filed against Harvard.)

Sources familiar with the accusers' version of events claim that, in fact, it was the continued, implicit threat of public exposure of the situation that finally drove the administration to act. "People were demonstrating that they weren't tiring of the issue," says one of those sources. Speaking of administrators, another asserts: "Instantly they were like, 'Don't talk to the media.' They were more concerned with public image than how women in the school were feeling."

Oddly, the current situation comes at a time when the school has taken a number of high-profile steps to improve its standing on gender issues. Instead of receiving a simple pamphlet about sexual harassment (called Tell Someone) as in the past, incoming students now discuss a series of vignettes about appropriate and inappropriate classroom behavior. The school created a new administrative position, "director of student standards"--a sort of graduate-level hallway monitor--and has undertaken efforts to boost its female applicant pool. And late last year, the Committee of 200, a group of leading businesswomen, gave the school $500,000 to write more case studies featuring women. HBS announced it would chip in $500,000 of its own money for the cause.

But even that seemingly positive move drew fire. "That is just such a joke," one female student fumes. "HBS already had the money to write cases with women protagonists. If they really cared about women, they'd have taken the initiative." When Newsweek used the C-200 gift as an opportunity to lament the business school's "dismal record on women's issues," a member of the administration asked the Women's Student Association to write the magazine a letter of rebuttal, according to two people directly involved. The WSA declined.

It was a rare act of defiance at a school where most women are chary of taking a stand on gender issues. For one, they're constantly reminded by the administration and fellow students to preserve the school's "brand equity." That means keeping the school's dirty laundry well buried in the hamper, both male and female students say. And having invested close to $80,000 in their degree, many women say they are loath to jeopardize their standing within the powerful HBS alumni network. "You get branded," says a recent graduate, insisting that if she were to be quoted by name, "all 60 men in my section will never return my calls for the next 40 years of my career."

If such fears sound exaggerated, witness the exchange that took place in the student newspaper, the Harbus News, in the spring of 1997. In its April Fools' issue, under the headline "HBS Trying to Get More Chicks," the newspaper reported that the school would be offering more woman-oriented courses, such as "Sleeping Your Way to the Top," "PMS Best Practices Management," and "Addressing the 'Does This Make Me Look Fat?' Question." The article finished with a quote: "Jesus H. Christ--the last thing HBS needs is more whiny, self-absorbed, politically correct, premenstrual prissy cry babies who can't take a friggin' joke even if it is shoved down their friggin' throat!"

In one respect, anyway, the author was right: some women could not take the joke. "The 'parodied' attitudes are very close to 'real' attitudes that women deal with continually here," Karin Kissane and Cynthia Rutherford, then the copresidents of the WSA, shot back in a subsequent issue.

It doesn't help the situation for women at HBS, either, that the WSA resembles more of a business than an advocacy group. The WSA has built a healthy revenue stream printing up "red notes"--faculty-approved crib sheets for first-year courses, so called because of the color of the paper they're printed on--and distributing them to its members. (However, Sarah Di Troia, current copresident, says the WSA will soon stop the practice.) The notes are said to be good, which is why more than 90% of the men on campus pay the $30 fee to become a member of the WSA. As a result, says a former WSA officer, the organization is sometimes wary of taking controversial stands that might alienate its customers--or rather, its members. "The fear is, we get so much money from them [red notes], we can't be too much of a political force on campus," she says. "It's kind of beautifully and bizarrely HBS."

On the day the Boston Globe story ran, Loretto Crane, the B-school's director of communications, was standing in the lobby outside Kim Clark's office. Professor Warren McFarlan, apparently unaware that Crane was standing with an Inc. reporter, seemed to be basking in the glow of a story well spun. "You did a nice job, Loretto," he offered on his way through.

Spin doctoring aside, many are inclined to credit Clark, who has been in his post not yet three years, with a sincere desire to improve the school's climate. "The dean's office had some very lumpy rugs when Kim came into it," says one faculty member, referring to problems inherited from Clark's predecessor, John McArthur, widely viewed as a wily practitioner of realpolitik.

Already, the administration has announced it will start editing the student-produced handbook that the school sends to incoming first-year students, excising references to certain classroom traditions and coarse humor. (The handbook's current version, in a section on campus dating, counsels students to "think globally and penetrate locally.") But as many point out, a culture is a slow thing to change, rooted as it is in the larger business environment. Even female students, many of whom have come from testosterone-filled environments such as Wall Street, seem to propagate the locker-room culture at times: in a stand-up performance at a section Christmas party, one of the woman complainants joked that her accounting professor "still hasn't gotten laid."

In the past, Clark has spoken of making Harvard Business School a "living model" for life in the corporate world. He says he'd now like to apply that principle to the school's culture. And it's precisely that aim that prompts consequential questions: Where does this sort of behavior come from? And more to the point, where will it go when its perpetrators depart campus for the real world?

"The plain fact--and the thing that I apologize for--is that it took us too long to act," concedes Clark. "We should have been much more aggressive."

But perhaps even that apology misses the mark a bit, says one former faculty member. "The real question," that former faculty member notes, "is whether the school is one year late or 15 years late."

Jerry Useem is an associate editor at Inc. Additional reporting was contributed by Inc. reporter Mike Hofman and associate editor Joshua Macht.

Last updated: Jun 1, 1998




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