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Myra Strober: thirty five years of gender scholarship, and counting

Oct 16 2009

When Myra Strober spearheaded Stanford University's first Center for Research on Women (CROW) in 1974, the need for serious scholarship and advocacy on gender issues was painfully obvious. At the time, American women were earning only 59 cents on the dollar compared to men. There was little recourse against sexual bias and harassment in schools and workplaces, and few role models for university students who wanted to combine family life with careers outside the home.

Thirty five years later, Strober says, "I think we've made a lot of progress."  Women now are earning 78 cents on the dollar compared to men, and they comprise more than half of college undergraduates, medical students and law students. Businesses are more open to the idea of parental leaves, part-time arrangements and child care subsidies for their employees, while at home men are devoting more time to household tasks and parenting. “Women are getting more education, staying in the workforce, gaining work experience, and there’s less discrimination,” says Strober, a Stanford professor of education and professor by courtesy in the Graduate School of Business.

At the same time, she says, there’s still plenty of gender-oriented teaching and scholarship left to be done—particularly in the area of work-family balance. “That’s the real difficult issue facing my students today: How do you have a successful, demanding career and still raise a family? If you’re jetting twice a month to Singapore, or you’re going to Singapore and your wife is going to London, who’s minding the store?” Strober knows firsthand the challenge of combining a demanding career with motherhood. After earning her doctorate in economics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and serving as an assistant professor at the University of Maryland, she came west to teach at UC-Berkeley, only to be denied a starting spot on Cal’s tenure track. The reason, her department chair confessed, was that she had two babies. Fortunately Stanford didn’t have such qualms, and offered her an assistant professor position in 1972. But the incident stoked Strober’s interest in women’s labor issues, which in turn led three female Stanford students to seek her out. Would it be possible, they asked, for Strober to launch a center for research on women – a place on the Farm where academic research on women’s issues would be sparked, nurtured, and publicized?

Looking back, Strober says, laughing, “It was a really crazy thing for an assistant professor to do. I was raising very young children; my husband had a demanding career, and I was the first woman faculty member ever at the Business School, so that was a challenge.” Nevertheless, the more she thought about the novel idea, the more it made sense. “There was nothing else like this in American higher education, and the time was right.” With Strober at the helm and contributing $100,000 in seed money, it didn’t take long for other Stanford faculty and community members to jump on board. One of her greatest allies was Jing Lyman, wife of the university president. “Not only did she like the idea herself,” Strober recalls, “but her advocacy in high places was very important.” Tapping into an extensive network of friends, Lyman launched a support group called the CROW Associates that helped to raise the center’s profile on campus. Before long, enthusiastic audiences were lining up for the center’s popular lunchtime lectures and publications.

Now renamed and relocated in Serra House, and supported by a $10 million endowment, the Michelle R. Clayman Institute for Gender Research still has a packed events calendar that includes monthly lectures, seminars, and at least one major community conference each year. At last count, the Institute had 160 Stanford faculty affiliates, a third of them men. The Institute also offers a variety of research and graduate dissertation fellowships, allowing respected scholars from Stanford and beyond to concentrate on gender-oriented scholarship, share their work and find like-minded collaborators. Reflecting on its 35th anniversary, Strober likes to think of the Clayman Institute as her third child – one blessed from the start with support from a caring community, and exceeding beyond anyone’s expectations. As she explains, “Our goals in the beginning were modest: We wanted to raise issues of gender and to be a beacon of outstanding work. But now the Clayman Institute is not only a light on campus, it has become a national and international beacon. Everybody knows that one of the major places for gender research is right here. And that is an amazing and heartwarming accomplishment.” The Clayman Institute is hosting a 35th Anniversary Celebration on Friday, October 23, 2009 at 3:15 pm at Levinthal Hall, Stanford Humanities Center. The event includes a symposium: How Gender Can Save Lives: Redesigning Medical Research.

A gender lens
exposes gaps in knowledge,
identifies root causes of barriers,
and proposes workable solutions.