A legacy of groundbreaking feminism: Myra Strober shares her story
In 1970, in the offices of UC Berkeley’s economics department, then-chair George Break told Myra Strober, later to become founding director of the Clayman Institute, that she could not be a tenure-track professor simply because she did not live in Berkeley. As she left Break’s office and drove back to Palo Alto across the Bay Bridge, Strober realized she was being denied the faculty position not because of where she lived, but because she was a woman and a mother.
On that fateful afternoon, Strober says, “I became a feminist on the Bay Bridge. The anger and enlightenment of that day will energize the rest of my life. They led me to become one of the creators of a new academic field and new institutions to study sexism and fight it.” This fight would lead her to pioneering research in gender and economics, teaching courses to generations of students on women and work, and opening the Center for Research on Women, the predecessor to the Clayman Institute.
On April 19, 2016 the Bechtel Conference Center at Stanford was filled with Strober’s peers, colleagues, former students, friends, family and even her daughter—all eagerly waiting to hear her read from her newly released book, Sharing the Work, What My Family and Career Taught Me about Breaking Through (and Holding the Door Open for Others). As the audience listened to stories of Strober’s groundbreaking work in feminist economics, it was clear the friendly, supportive atmosphere was far different from the one that opens Strober’s story.
Strober’s memoir intermingles stories of her life with accounts of her career experiences, giving both a deeply personal as well as historical narrative of an inspiring feminist pioneer. She transports her readers to what may seem to today’s students like a very different era, as she shares stories of curfews, women’s dorms and dress codes at Cornell University, where she earned her BS degree in industrial and labor relations, before earning an MA in economics from Tufts, and a Ph.D. in economics from MIT. Despite the differences in campus life over the years, Strober’s stories resonate with young academics today, many of whom can clearly identify with the challenges of balancing rewarding personal and work lives, negotiating institutional expectations and pursuing their goals.
The experience with Break may have launched Strober’s feminist journey, but she was not done facing opposition from leadership, peers and even students as she pursued her academic career. After leaving Berkeley, in 1972, Strober joined Stanford’s Graduate School of Business, where she started as an assistant professor and built her academic career from there. In one of her courses in introductory economics for the Sloan Fellows, she recounted, a female student made her aware of the frequent hostile comments directed at Strober from her (mostly male) students, something Strober had not noticed before, or had forced herself to ignore. “I’ve learned to handle hostility by ignoring it,” she said, “and denial, I decide, is not a bad coping strategy.”
Even through her most challenging stories, Strober never loses her strength or her sense of humor. The enduring good nature and tenacity in her words are not the only thread linking her stories. Throughout her memoir, Strober introduces her readers to a network of women and men who joined her in the fight against sexism, to push for institutional change. This network of supporters represented Strober’s greatest hope: a community to “share the work.”
Laying the groundwork for the Clayman Institute
When Strober first became a faculty member at the GSB in the 1970s, she said, she was approached by a small group of undergraduate students who were interested in starting an institute for research on women. While intrigued by the idea, at the time she did not believe she could lead the center. She told them, “Assistant professors don’t start research centers. You need senior faculty for that. I support you 100 percent, but I have to support you from the sidelines.”
The following year, working with the students, Strober helped the Center for Research on Women (CROW) launch its first lecture series. The response was tremendous. Interest in the center grew, as did support for Strober’s leadership. Eventually, she said, she began to believe that she really could lead the center, and became its founding director. In 1986, CROW changed its name to the Institute for Research on Women and Gender (IRWG), and in May 2004, IRWG changed its name to the Michelle R. Clayman Institute for Gender Research, in recognition of a significant endowment gift made by long-time supporter Michelle R. Clayman (M.B.A. ’79).
Throughout its over 40 years, the Clayman Institute has continued to be inspired by the legacy left by Strober and the members of the community who came together to “share the work.” Its consistent focus on delivering cutting-edge research on gender and diversity issues reaches across disciplines to foster inclusive environments in the workplace, education, institutions and society.
Strober closes her book with the passion and commitment that are the hallmarks of her advocacy. Quoting the 2000-year-old writings of Rabbi Tarfon from “Pirkei Avot” (Ethics of the Fathers), she writes, “It is not incumbent upon you to complete the work, but neither are you at liberty to desist from it.”
“I understand now, even more than when I started,” she says, “that the changes I seek are deep and difficult, and that I won’t see the desired outcomes in my own lifetime. But I also know that for as long as I’m able, as both player and coach, I’ll continue to work toward a world in which every person’s basic economic needs are met, and each of us has the opportunity to fulfill our potential in the public sphere as well as in private life.”