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Saturday, April 28, 2007

The Origins of a Feminist Economist

There are two topics here, discrimination and social safety nets:

Business School's first female professor reveals the roots of her feminism, by Michael Peña, Stanford News Service: Given the profound stresses and stereotyping encountered by Professor Myra Strober throughout her life, it's no surprise that she trained her intellectual sights on the field of feminist economics.

Even on the cusp of her teenage years, Strober was already irked that her best friend at the time, Billy, had a bar mitzvah on his 13th birthday while she couldn't. Strober said she questioned this and recalled how "most of my relatives thought I was nuts." But not her father, whose heart was genuinely broken by the frustration his daughter felt.

"I was furious, and I quit Hebrew school," Strober said. ...

Strober recalled intimate details such as these... Now an accomplished professor of education and, by courtesy, of economics at the Graduate School of Business, Strober looked back on moments in her life that made her the feminist and fighter she has become.

Strober grew up as the eldest grandchild in a large Orthodox Jewish family in Brooklyn, New York. Her grandfather was passionate and persuasive about his Judaism, ... and every grandchild was enrolled in the synagogue's Hebrew school.

That is until little Myra dropped out. Then two years later, she, her younger sister and their parents were living in an apartment a few blocks from Brooklyn College. Mom was a college graduate, having taken night classes over seven years. Her father, however, couldn't afford college tuition when he was younger and, as an adult, was too exhausted to take night classes after a full day's work, Strober said.

The parents wanted their daughters to attend Brooklyn College. Tuition was free, and they could still live at home. But Myra wanted to attend a better college elsewhere, and when she found out her grade-score average far exceeded the 85 needed to get into the nearby college, she presented Daddy with a dilemma.

"I told my father I was pretty sure I could get an 85 average without opening another book for the next three years," Strober recalled. "And unless he gave me the opportunity to compete for a scholarship to go out of town, I would do just that—not open another book."

Her father agreed, but warned her that if he became unemployed, she would have to come home. Strober said her father—a salesman in the men's clothing industry—feared being out of a job throughout her younger years. And that's when she started asking questions such as what produced unemployment, and how could society create an economy where people weren't so threatened by unemployment.

"To this day, one of the things that's crucial to me is that people not be in constant fear of unemployment," Strober said, "that our economy produce jobs for all people who want them, for a decent wage, that there be a safety net for people who do become unemployed and that education be open to all people so they can improve their job and wage prospects."

But the experience that had perhaps the biggest impact on Strober's life was when she came to the University of California-Berkeley in 1970 to be a lecturer in the economics department—although there was an opening for an assistant professor at the time. Strober already had been an assistant professor at the University of Maryland and gave up her tenure-track position to move to the Bay Area with her then-husband, who got a job at Stanford.

When Strober arrived at Berkeley, she saw two of her former classmates—males—from her doctoral program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and they were assistant professors. This upset her, and at first, Strober said she could not get a straight answer out of the department chair as to why. Eventually, though, the chair pointed out that she had two babies and said the department would oppose putting her on a tenure track.

Around the same time, however, Strober said Berkeley was the subject of a federal investigation regarding allegations of sex discrimination made by several women on the faculty there. A year later, Strober said she was offered an assistant professor position. But Stanford—apparently nervous about the scarcity of women on its own faculty, according to Strober—offered her an assistant professor position as well, at the Graduate School of Business.

"I became a committed feminist after my experience at Berkeley," said Strober, who became the first woman on the faculty at the Business School. "I had to fight for my right to have both a career and a family. But I wanted to help others to do the same. I began to do research on precisely this question: How can women be helped to have children, as well as high-level jobs?"

Strober said she was one of the first people to write about the economics of childcare; she argued that there is a powerful economic case for government to subsidize childcare, much like it subsidizes education. But when she presented this argument in her very first seminar, Strober said her colleagues thought it was outrageous and didn't let her finish the talk.

"When I came to Stanford, women were 7 percent of the faculty, and 4 percent of the tenured faculty," Strober said. "That same year, Stanford Business School hired its first black faculty member, its first Hispanic and its first Asian American faculty member."

She also recalled that there were five female students in the first class she taught: "Five out of 350, and they made a slideshow called, 'What's a nice girl like you doing in a place like this?'"

Strober eventually had a bat mitzvah last year, along with eight other women who missed out the first time around. She is a mother and grandmother; and professionally, she continues to advocate for gender equity in the workforce through scholarship and consulting for corporations. ...

    Posted by on Saturday, April 28, 2007 at 07:53 AM in Economics | Permalink  TrackBack (0)  Comments (7)

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