Ph.D. Octopus

Politics, media, music, capitalism, scholarship, and ephemera since 2010

The Corporate World, Ivy League Douchebaggery and Women

with 6 comments

by Weiner

The world is all atwitter about the sins of Goldman Sachs. Few smart people are the least bit surprised. Yet for some of us, the warning signs came far earlier. As Matt Yglesias observed in a funny and accurate post, “you can’t properly analyze the Harvard to Wall Street pipeline without using the term ‘douchebag.’” In comparing the Teach for America recruiting process with that of the  financial sector, Yglesias writes:

there’s a certain kind of person who walks into a room filled with people interested in working on Wall Street and people who do work on Wall Street and says to himself (and it’s no coincidence that it’s almost always himself) “these are the kind of people I want to align myself with.”

Though Yglesias finds bankers top be among “the most annoying people,” he admits that all of this is “relative,” that is to say, subjective, and that in all likelihood “if you ask a bunch of bankers they’ll say all the worst people from college went on to become glib political journalists or to teach in inner-city schools.”

All this rings pretty true to me. Back when I was a glib columnist for the Harvard Crimson, I penned a column about how the I-Banking types were for the most part insufferably boring people, and how the recruiting process itself encouraged a careerist anti-intellectualism that accentuated this boring douchebaggery.

Some recruits may have been genuinely converted. As Ezra Klein reveals in this interview with a Harvard grad turned Goldman Sachs I-Banker, many of these graduates felt investment banking wasn’t something they planned on, but “the recruiting culture at Harvard is extremely powerful.” Male douchebags run to it like moths to a flame, but so do many others, including many women.

My 5th year Harvard reunion is approaching (5th year reunions seem to be the kind of thing that only elite schools care about; certainly this phenomenon does not exist in Canada). In the Harvard Class of 2005 Fifth Anniversary Report (Cambridge, MA: The Presidents and Fellows of Harvard College, 2010), a red book where alumni could submit information about their lives, many graduates reported about their choices to go into I-Banking, or Consulting, or other areas of the corporate world. Most claimed to be happy, and I suppose they might be telling the truth (many are wealthy and boring people who get to surround themselves with other wealthy and boring people).

Some, however, reported ambivalence. The examples I found (this was not an exhaustive survey) turned out to be women.

One classmate had written a progressive feminist column for the The Crimson while in school with me.  Here’s what she had to say :

While at Harvard, I published a book encouraging more young women to enter politics and dedicate their lives to civic engagement. Since graduation I’ve been working at a multinational investment bank helping rich companies become richer. I’m not quite where I want to end up at this point, but I’ve been told that “putting in your time” in the corporate world will pay off eventually. Let’s see how things look at the next Reunion.

Another graduate wrote this:

Since 2006, I have been living in New York City and working in commodities and international trade. [My co-workers] are white, old, and male, so I obviously fit right in.

Not thoroughly inspired with this work, she founded a not-for-profit dedicated to fighting breast cancer. And so she concluded:

While I really do love [my job] and have made many friends who older, white, and male, I am currently in the midst of seeking out a new career. I am attempting to find a job that does not involve as many spreadsheets as my current position and will allow me to better serve others.

Perhaps the most interesting report along these lines came from another female student I knew in college, a very bright woman who took a history seminar with me. She noted that the “most life-altering thing she did at Harvard” was go on a volunteer spring break trip “to rebuild black churches burned in arson attacks.” There she discovered that she “liked construction,” she “liked the act of building, or managing complex projects,” she “liked work boots, two-by-fours, power tools, and yelling at people.” She ironically observed, “At Harvard, a place notorious for not teaching its students any useful skills, I learned how to hang a drywall.”

But then her story took a different turn.

I was living in [X] after graduation, hating ever day as a management consultant, when my boyfriend gave me a roof-shingling hatchet as a birthday gift. It was a transformative moment–here was someone who believed in me and the things I liked to do. I left my job, bought a dilapidated house in [X] and started my first renovation project. I was a twenty-three-year-old homeowner reading a book called Plumbing 1-2-3 and learning how to restore 1920s windows. I was also pulling stray bullets out of my roof and trying to keep the local dog-fighting ring out of my backyard.

She and her boyfriend “gutted and rebuilt the house by hand, got lucky and sold it off before the market crashed, and married soon after.” They moved to the northeast, and she stills works in construction. And so she concluded:

Harvard teaches you to follow your dreams–and then the recruiters show up on campus and remind you that the one path to true enlightenment is management consulting. I feel lucky to have discovered something else, something I can touch with my hands. Or with a hatchet.

These women all reported some dissatisfaction with the corporate world. But 3 examples do not make for a very solid body of evidence. As a result, I don’t quite know what to conclude here. Obviously many people are happy in the corporate world. But it remains a very masculine environment and that masculinity may continue to make some women uncomfortable. If the latest regulation succeeds not only in reining in risk and protecting the economy from future bubbles bursting but also allows for greater gender parity on Wall Street, then that should be taken as a positive development. And maybe the Ivy League pipeline can lead more graduates to more public spirited careers. And maybe the financial sector should put some kind of filter in the pipeline and start looking elsewhere when hiring.


Written by David Weinfeld

April 27, 2010 at 13:47

6 Responses

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  1. Thanks for the post. Nice to hear about what seem people are doing. One thought on the concluding paragraph — you seem to cast everything as “i-banking or consulting” vs. “public-spirited career”? You could have a broad definition of what “public-spirited” means, but you’re likely missing some range of private sector endeavors (aside from journalism) that create more value to society than i-banking & consulting. For example, I would describe facebook as something that’s privately motivated but still creates value to society. Are there any other examples? Or does Harvard fail to produce many people like that?


    April 28, 2010 at 10:10

  2. DRDR, your point is well-taken. Certainly many private sector careers have considerable public value. My point was simply about the predominance of I-banking (and other financial sector jobs) and consulting.


    May 5, 2010 at 15:57

  3. […] bankers, consultants, and the like. I complained about this then, and I’ll complain about it now. But it was not that hard to find interesting people doing interesting things, and probably much […]

  4. […] have written about this issue before. But thinking about all this stuff more made me realize how naive I was […]

  5. […] or really any high-level finance job on Wall Street? I think the first word most of us think of is “douchebag.” I’m sure that even when Goldman and Sachs were 19th century German-Jewish immigrant peddlers […]

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