I’m pledging a sorority at Harvard this term. This would be unremarkable except that I am not a student and I am not a woman. My sorority is the Partners’ Club, a group of students’ spouses at Harvard Business School, where my wife is in her first year. “Partners” is actually a euphemism; the group was called the Wives Club for years, and it remains 98 percent female today, a measure of the school’s woeful recruitment of female students. Partners’ Club events—afternoon teas, potluck suppers, self-defense seminars, play groups—are designed to keep us spouses busy while our husbands, er, partners, train to become masters of the universe. But the other men seem to find it awkward enough playing the trailing spouse without joining something that sounds, at first, like the Junior League.
The Partners’ Club newsletter, “The Connection,” keeps me up to date on all club happenings. Sadly, I missed the Ritz tea, at which, “The Connection” reported on page one, “We helped ourselves to the abundant buffet of tea sandwiches, fruit tarts, and warm scones.” I’m afraid I also skipped a session this month at which Crane & Co. stationers coached us on “the etiquette of letter writing.” Another evening found the Partners’ Club gathered in a classroom for a simulation of a famed HBS Case Study. The case was about (what else?) a florist. “Why do we send flowers?” the professor queried. One of the women ventured: “It makes us feel nice.” Another tried to improve on this: “It makes us feel loved.” In the back row, a friend of mine, Bob, one of two men at the event, had heard enough. “It keeps us out of the doghouse,” he blurted. Alas, the Partners’ Club has since had to do without such masculine insight, as Bob, who prefers the sweaty familiarity of the basketball court, hasn’t returned. I suppose I can’t blame him. I’m having trouble becoming one of the gals myself. Even the campus gym doesn’t seem to want to recognize male partners. When I joined the gym, my membership card came back to me with my name but a photo of a young woman. The towel attendant told me it was a vast improvement.
To counter this threat to manly dignity, I’ve joined with some similarly disgruntled husbands to form a Partners’ Club splinter group. We don’t actually meet—we can’t be bothered with such details—but we have a name: the Harvard University Male Partners’ Club. The idea came at a dinner in Boston’s North End with five husbands and our business-school wives. We had slipped into our role-reversal easily, the women talking about their career plans and the men exchanging kitchen tips and lamenting our deteriorating figures. But then conversation turned to the fact that we weren’t scoring any points for being sensitive—our wives considered us a nuisance. So we traded various ribald slogans for Club t-shirts and contemplated a hostile slate for the approaching Partners’ Club elections. The rebellious guys promised they would join me the following week for the Partners’ Club potluck.
They lied. At the potluck, I found myself the only member of my male partners’ club and, for that matter, the only member of my gender. True to my sex, I arrived an hour late and without a dish. Through the window, I could see some three dozen women and not a single male out of diapers. I walked around the building twice to summon the courage to enter and, upon entering, could almost feel conversations die as people stared. I was a freak. “You’re a partner?” inquired the first woman to whom I introduced myself. The experience reminded me of when I strolled down to the Mall, back in Washington, D.C., on my lunch break to see the Million Man March: I was welcome enough, but conspicuously out of place. At the potluck, though, I was soon sitting at a table with a dozen women, nibbling cookies and sipping Diet Coke. A woman offered babysitting services. Another asked if I’d been spending much time at the gym. “We’re going to have great bodies by the time it’s over,” she declared. Still, this wasn’t exactly a knitting club: Some of the women I met held high-powered jobs that could match any male partner’s. So where were all the guys? “I guess they couldn’t handle being with all these women,” one partner suggested. Another woman shook my hand to salute my courage in shattering the gender barrier, then added: “You must have a feminine personality.”
The Partners’ Club’s man trouble is the inevitable result of Harvard Business School’s woman trouble. HBS has been admitting women since the class of 1965, but the number has never been higher than 29 percent, and the percentage has declined over the last two years—to 24 percent for my wife’s class, the class of 1998. Harvard admits women in proportion to their numbers in the applicant pool, refusing to dilute quality just to plug the gender gap. That makes sense to me. My wife wouldn’t want anyone to think she’s here because of softer criteria. On the other hand, the uniquely powerful Harvard MBA propels its bearers up the corporate ladder, and HBS, by working harder to recruit and admit more women, could go a long way toward leveling the corporate gender imbalance. Until it does, HBS is a scary place for its female minority.
Actually, it’s a scary place for most anyone. Because grades are based on class participation, students joust for “airtime” in class while steering clear of “sharks” (the classmates who publicly cut down peers to advance themselves). The women must also contend with constant sexual innuendo and coarse humor in class. One man I know of declared, in a role-playing session, “I’ll cut your balls off,” to mass applause. It may be aggravating for women, but perhaps the sexism is a good thing. These women will soon be vastly outnumbered by beastly men in the boardroom. Better to learn their boorish ways early, in the classroom.
Speaking of beastly men, my comrades in the male partners’ club again let me down on Partners’ Club election night. Only one man received a vote, and that was my write-in of Bob for social coordinator. This time I was alone with 50 women. The campaign speeches (one promised a monthly get-together “to give you moms some time out”) did not entice me. The whole thing was entirely too nice. A candidate for president even suggested calling off the vote and electing everybody—a proposal that surely wouldn’t fly among the husband-sharks at HBS. Fortunately, the race for vice president held more appeal. One candidate suggested a “men’s night,” because, let’s face it, “our events are geared more toward women.” It was blatant pandering for the male vote, but successful. I cast my ballot for men’s night. Later, I asked her to elaborate, and she said the husbands should meet at a bar, by themselves, and smoke cigars. Maybe we can watch a wrestling match, scratch ourselves and make rude noises, too. Male partners’ club members will distribute needlepoint patterns.