Scholars at International Association for Feminist Economics conference urge education for women and girls

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Scholars at International Association for Feminist Economics conference urge education for women and girls

by Adrienne Rose Johnson on Thursday, July 18, 2013 - 10:10am

IAFFE audience“Why are they assistant professors while I’m a lecturer?” Myra Strober asked her department chair forty years ago, while working at a different unversity. It’s difficult to imagine Strober, now a renowned Stanford labor economist, as she described her younger self – nervous, sweaty, a “second-class citizen” on the wrong side of the tenure track. Yet in 1970, Strober was, in her own words, “stuck on the road to nowhere.”

The chair dodged the question, first claiming that Strober needed to live closer to campus to qualify for tenure track. A month later, he countered that he couldn’t promote Strober in good conscience because she had two young children. This early experience of employment discrimination kindled Strober’s pursuit of feminist economics, a field that investigates women's and men's different roles and opportunities in the economy.

Strober, now professor emerita at Stanford's Graduate School of Education and (by courtesy) the Graduate School of Business, recounted this formative experience during the closing plenary of the International Association for Feminist Economics  (IAFFE) conference, which Stanford hosted in mid-July. During the closing session, titled “The Education of Women and Girls,” Strober sat alongside Jo Boaler, professor of education at Stanford, and Amita Chudgar, who earned her PhD at Stanford in 2006 and is now associate professor of education at Michigan State University.

IAFFE chose women’s education and work as the most pressing issue facing feminist economics.

Together, these three scholars provided the capstone for the three-day conference. IAFFE chose women’s education and work as the most pressing issue facing feminist economics. Now in its twentieth year, the IAFFE conference hosted scholars from all corners of the world who, in 139 presentations, waged debate on topics such as fertility timing, microfinance, and farming.

Strober kicks in the door

Myra Strober at IAFFEStrober’s own career was not ended by workplace gender discrimination. She decided she had “worked too hard for too many years to be content with second-class citizenship.”

Instead, Strober dealt with the problem like a scholar – she turned to the library. She read texts by nineteenth-century women's rights advocates such as Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. In these historical documents, Strober saw a parallel to her own experience. She began to discover why “A woman – me! – with all the right training and credentials is not treated the same as her male peers.”    

In particular, Stanton’s 1848 manifesto for women's rights resonated powerfully, electrifying Strober with its call to “overthrow the monopoly” of men’s power, to work towards the “speedy success of our cause [which] depends upon the zealous and untiring efforts of both men and women.”

“Okay, Mrs. Stanton, count me in for the fight!” Strober responded, joining forces with other women lecturers to help the Federal Labor Department investigate complaints of sex discrimination in academic hiring.

She chronicles the outcome of the fight in her upcoming book Kicking in the Door – A Memoir, including her fight for a tenure-track position and her eventual move to Stanford University, where she gained tenure in 1978.   

Kindle for the fire: Educating girls, educating a generation

Panelists Boaler and Chudgar followed Strober’s remarks with their own research studies on women and education. Boaler and Chudgar investigate the educations gaps between girls and boys – both in terms of their enrollment in school and their success once they get there. 

The STEM education gap “harms the disciplines like mathematics and science which would really benefit from the perspectives of more women and girls,” said Jo Boaler

Jo Boaler presented her findings on the education gap between women and men in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) subjects. Over the past decade, the math achievement gap has narrowed considerably on standardized tests, explained Boaler. In Iceland and Thailand, girls are actually scoring higher than boys.

But this early achievement by girls is not leading to STEM degrees or careers. Women constitute less than 25% of computer science majors, according to Boaler, who considers computer science “THE degree of the next generation.”

Even more disappointing to Boaler? The percentage is steadily dropping every decade.

The STEM gap is often blamed on girl’s nature, according to Boaler. For example, people assume that “girls don’t want to do maths and sciences,” that girls brains are wired differently, or that girls opt out because it’s too hard. But Boaler finds that teaching style and persistent stereotypes are the more likely culprit, and that a more collaborative teaching environment would boost these numbers and beat down these stereotypes.

The STEM education gap, Boaler said, “not only harms girls and women, but it also harms the disciplines like mathematics and science which would really benefit from the perspectives of more women and girls.” And, she added, “it also harms society.” 

Amita ChudgarChudgar spoke about the education gap in India. She studies why parents underinvest in their daughters’ education, an underinvestment that persists even across rural, urban, rich, poor differences. Even as Chudgar looked at many variables, she found that “however you splice and dice the data, these gaps do not go away.”

One cause could be a lack of educated adult women that serve as role models. Another could be that girls believe that they have less agency over their own fates.

Fifty percent of older women, ages 45-49, report having no education at all. Even among younger women, ages 15-19, the proportion is still twenty-three percent. 

The future of feminist economics

One hundred and sixty years ago, Elizabeth Cady Stanton pled for “zealous and untiring efforts” to ensure gender equity. Forty years ago, Myra Strober kicked in the door to higher academia. Twenty-two years ago, the International Association of Feminist Economics convened its first conference. 

Heirs to this history of “zealous and untiring efforts,” Chudgar, Boaler, and an entirely new generation of scholars are working towards kicking in their own doors – the doors of educational privilege, stereotyping, and inequality. 

Myra Strober
Myra Strober
Professor Emerita

Myra Strober is a labor economist and professor emerita at the Graduate School of Education and, by courtesy, the Graduate School of Business at Stanford University. Strober was the founding director of the Clayman Institute for Gender Research (then the Center for Research on Women).

Jo Boaler
Jo Boaler

Jo Boaler is a Professor of Mathematics Education at Stanford University and the editor of the Research Commentary section of The Journal for Research in Mathematics Education (JRME). She was a 2012-13 Faculty Research Fellow at the Clayman Institute.

Amita Chudgar
Amita Chudgar
Associate Professor

Amita Chudgar is an associate professor in the Department of Educational Administration at Michigan State University. She earned her PhD at Stanford University and was a Clayman Institute Graduate Dissertation Fellow.

Adrienne Johnson
Adrienne Rose Johnson
PhD Candidate

Adrienne Rose Johnson is a PhD candidate in Modern Thought and Literature. She is a member of the Clayman Institute's student writing team.