Myra Strober: Breaking Barriers at Stanford GSB

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Myra Strober: Breaking Barriers at Stanford GSB

One of the school’s first female faculty members talks about that uninviting climate — and how she’s built the field of feminist economics.
August 24, 2018
Myra Strober has been a pioneer in feminist economics, studying how women are treated in the workplace. | Courtesy Stanford Special Collections & University Archives

When Myra Strober, a professor emerita of economics at Stanford Graduate School of Business, came to the university in 1972, she was one of the first two women to be hired into a faculty position at the business school.

Her appointment coincided with a shift happening at universities at the time. President Lyndon Johnson had signed an executive order requiring government contractors to hire women and minorities, and faculty women at numerous universities had filed complaints with the Labor Department against a number of prestigious universities for excluding women.

“All these universities suddenly got religion when the complaints were filed,” Strober told an audience at the Stanford GSB 2018 spring reunion keynote. “Although Stanford didn’t have a complaint filed, Stanford was afraid that this might happen if it didn’t get on the stick.” That year, Stanford GSB also hired its first African-American, Asian-American, and Hispanic professors, she said.

Those first few years at Stanford proved challenging. “I used to say it was 90 men and me,” Strober said. “My colleagues were not happy that the school had hired women.” She said this was partly because they had been accustomed to having their faculty retreats at an all-male institution called “the family farm.” A few colleagues made offensive suggestions that Strober could put a bag over her head before entering the retreat in order to disguise herself.

Despite the challenges, the dean at the time, Arjay Miller, was supportive and told Strober to ignore her colleagues. Eventually, he was able to get clearance for female faculty to attend the retreat, and he posted a sign on one of the bathrooms that said “Women.” “That just shows you how alien the place was,” said Strober.

Focusing on Feminist Economics

During her time at Stanford, Strober was a pioneer in the field of feminist economics and how women were being treated in the workplace. She was the founding director of Stanford’s Clayman Institute for Gender Research, the first chair of the National Council for Research on Women, and the president of the International Association for Feminist Economics.

Her research included papers on the division of housework and child care and books including Women and Poverty and Feminism, Children and the New Families. One of her studies looked at salaries of Stanford GSB graduates in 1974. She found no significant difference between men’s and women’s salaries after graduation, but four years into their careers, in a second survey, she saw a major gap in pay. “At that point many women had taken time off to have children and they were penalized extraordinarily for that,” she said.

In her early years at Stanford, Strober was part of an effort to recruit more female students. Her first year, only five women were enrolled at the business school. “Companies were being asked to hire women in management for the same reason that the business school wanted women faculty, which namely was the law,” she said. “But they couldn’t find women in management because not only were there only five women students at Stanford GSB, the numbers were the same all over the country.” Dean Miller asked her if she would help recruit more female students and she agreed. “As soon as word got out that the GSB was interested in accepting women students, the applications flowed in,” she said. “It was not so much a problem on the supply side, it was institutional discrimination that changed.”

She also taught a course called Women and Work, later changing the name to Work and Family to entice men to sign up. Now, “the percentage of men in the class keeps increasing,” she said. “We’re up to 30% to 35% men in the class.”

Looking Ahead

Today, Strober believes there’s still a long way to go to see more equality in the business world, though she’s encouraged by the recent #MeToo movement. “The #MeToo movement is important because it shows that many women are finally developing their voice,” she said. “They’ve gained strength from one another. But the underlying problem is that women are still not well represented in many fields. And men tend to be in the more lucrative occupations with more promotion opportunities.”

As word got out that the GSB was interested in accepting women students, the applications flowed in. It was not so much a problem on the supply side, it was institutional discrimination that changed.
Myra Strober

She said that industries need to retain women by providing better family leave policies. “In business, women leave not so much because the workplace is not interesting to them, but because the workplace doesn’t accommodate family,” she said. “They can’t see another way, especially if they’re married to someone who also has a demanding career.”

The years between age 25 and 35 are critical to one’s career, Strober said, but it’s the exact time that society demands men and women raise young children. “The old system was that women raised the children and men looked at their careers. But now everybody at the same time is trying to have a career, everybody’s trying to be a good parent, and people have enormous stress,” she said. “How are we going to solve this? One [way] is to have more flexible workplaces, but I think we need an even bigger solution. We need more besides the #MeToo movement. We need to think out of the box.”

One solution: Transfer income from the retirement years to the childrearing years. Couples could dial back their careers while raising young children, then postpone retirement. Longer careers post-children is becoming necessary anyway as life expectancy increases, she said. Most people can’t afford to retire at 65 if they live to be 100. “We need to make it possible for you to finance dialing down your career a bit during the heavy years of raising children, but we haven’t been creative in thinking about this problem,” she said.

Strober has also seen more men fighting for paternity leave, which she believes will help push family leave policies forward for everyone. “More men want to take time out to raise their children,” she said, “and there will need to be paths back for them. A good chunk of the men in my class write their papers on paternity leave. Once men are doing this as well as women, I think it will be a much smoother path for everybody.”

In addition, the government needs to step in, she said. The country went down the wrong path when it allowed companies to provide health care instead of the government. “It is foolish to think we are going to rely on companies alone for child care and parental leave,” she said. “Companies are not doing it. We need a child care system and we need paid parental leave.” And it’s past time to try. In 1971, she noted, Congress sent President Nixon a bill to create a national child care center system, which he vetoed, saying that it would weaken the family. “Congress has not sent a bill to the president for a child care system since 1971.”

Strober

— By Blaire Briody

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