Myra Strober is a labor economist and has worked as an Assistant Professor at the University of Maryland and in the Stanford Graduate School of Business, a Lecturer at the University of California at Berkeley and an Associate Dean for Academic Affairs at the Stanford School of Education. She has also been a part of various groundbreaking associations committed to creating positive change towards closing the gender gap. When recently offered the chance to speak with Myra Strober, I had just completed her memoir Sharing the Work: What My Family and Career Taught Me About Breaking Through (and Holding the Door Open for Others) , and jumped at the chance to ask her more about some of the tough issues she addresses. Sharing the Work is a must-read, and has been praised by feminist activist Gloria Steinem, who described it as a “memoir of a woman who has learned that ‘having it all’ is only possible by ‘sharing it all’.” Steinem also noted that “both women and men will find a friend in these pages.”
Throughout her book Myra shares unique, challenging and riveting stories about opposition she faced as she received a Bachelor’s degree from Cornell, a Masters degree from Tufts, a PhD in Economics from MIT and then attempted to land jobs she was qualified for in every way except—in the eyes of those hiring—her gender. The sage advice she has peppered into her stories for those following in her footsteps and benefitting from the challenges she rose to face is honest, wise and applicable to women and men of all ages. She has spent a lifetime accumulating and sharing extensive knowledge on gender issues at work, gender-based occupational segregation, the economics of childcare and feminist economics. She now offers the world a piece of that erudition through this book. Her answers to my questions were touched with her wisdom on gender issues as well as her thoughtful consideration of how those issues are still painfully relevant to students and professionals in the workplace today.
What inspired you to write this book?
I was telling these stories to my students for years and years and more recently I found that my students were surprised by these stories. And many of them who didn’t have moms or grand moms—who had gone through some of these experiences—really didn’t know about these experiences. And I wanted them, and others, to know what happened. I wanted people to know that there were big fights and that the people who are in the labor force today, and in school today, are really benefitting from those fights. And I wanted them to know what happened before they came on the scene.
Your memoir shines a light on discrimination you faced or noticed others facing in your professional life. You describe the position you took against that discrimination as one of a tempered radical. What is a tempered radical?
Well the first thing a tempered radical has to do is gain the trust of the people he or she is working with. A tempered radical works from within, gains the trust of people in power and then makes change with those powerful people. [They are] “tempered” because they propose relatively small changes at any one time and they case the joint, so to speak, to make sure that they have allies who are going to push this change with them.
How do you convince someone to step into being an ally?
Well firstly, I have to choose my potential allies realistically. So I can’t take someone who I know is vehemently opposed to women working at all and make them into an ally. But if I know someone whose daughter or whose wife or whose mother has herself had problems in the workplace and I know that this man feels that they were treated unjustly, I might talk to him over time and see if I could get him to be an ally. Often I’m successful, [but] sometimes I’m not. Even though he may feel that his mother was treated unfairly, he may not want to put time and energy into the cause that I’m suggesting. My experience is that when a man has a daughter who has been treated unfairly, he is much more likely to want to be an ally. Even more so than if his wife has been treated unfairly.
While many are now more inclined to listen and can be persuaded to act on issues of gender inequality, not everyone agrees on the semantics behind this movement. How do we get past the need to define someone as, or deny them permission to be, a “feminist”?
I think a lot of people do have problems with the word. My mother, who was clearly a feminist, never used the word to describe herself. She had a mental picture of a feminist and she didn’t fit that picture. And that was left over from the 1920s and the fight for suffrage and so on. Now I think women today also have an image of a feminist that doesn’t fit their picture and so they don’t call themselves feminists. I don’t mind. As long as they are fully committed to equality for women and men, as long as they don’t judge others who make different decisions than they make, I am happy to welcome them to the working fold. I think if a woman wants to call herself a feminist, if she’s working hard for feminist goals, I think that’s fine. It’s not for me to say whether she’s a feminist or not.
Over the course of your career, you have taught on a variety of subjects including the economics of feminism and that of work and family. What drew you to teaching? How has the student body of your class changed over time and how has that affected the questions that you are asked?
I always wanted to be a teacher. I love teaching. I love standing in front of a class or sitting at a table with students, throwing ideas around, hearing people’s comments about the ideas and trying to get them to think critically about their opinions. I just love doing that. My class has really changed; it has many more men in it now; it has many more foreign students because the student body has changed. So the conversations are way more interesting. Conversations about gender used to be kind of one-sided— they were mostly female views. And now men are interested in talking about gender as well. They’re interested in their roles— or future roles— at home, their roles as managers who are helping other people to balance work and family. So the conversations are much richer. And having foreign students in the class is also enriching because they bring experiences or points of view that are different, that are a function of how they grew up. So I learn a lot, the other students learn a lot, and I think that’s the reason we like to have students from other countries in our schools.
Based on your own experience, what does diversity add to academic and professional communities? What is your argument on behalf of purposefully expanding the workforce to include those who can infuse it with fresh and different perspectives?
I believe that diversity adds a tremendous amount to productivity, to creativity, to innovation. People who have grown up with different experiences really bring different experiences to the workplace and when they intermix with others that have had different experiences, lots of ideas bubble to the top that otherwise wouldn’t. What the literature shows and what experience shows is that if you [purposefully] broaden the pool from which you recruit, you will get people into the pool of potential hires that wouldn’t be in there otherwise. So, for example, a lot of big companies recruit only at certain colleges and universities and they don’t go to women’s colleges and historically black colleges. Once some of these other people come into the pool, whoever is doing the hiring sees that these folks are very competent and they make it into the workforce, not because they are female or black but because they’re terrific! But you would have missed them if you hadn’t specifically sought them out. And it’s interesting that nationally, you know, affirmative action requirements that were around in the 70s and 80s really aren’t being enforced today, so companies don’t have to do that kind of recruiting. But many of them still do because they have found over time that that’s the way they get the best people. So it’s not because the government is saying to them: you must do this, you must increase the percentage of women or blacks. But rather, [they say to themselves] we need more diversity here so we can have better ideas.
Do you have any advice for students or young people who are starting their careers for how they could learn more about and act on social issues that affect them?
I think people who are just starting their careers are in a tough situation because, while they have an abundance of idealism—which is great, and we need that—they don’t have an abundance of power. They are very much subject to the fact that they don’t have much seniority at the workplace, and they have to be careful in how they advocate for change because if they get themselves fired in the first couple of months, that’s not going to do anybody any good. So they have to be strategic, they have to build relationships with powerful people and— this is what I tried to do in my own career— get their support for change and get onto their coattails, if you will. Treat making social change as a very serious enterprise. It isn’t something that you think about in the morning and go to work and mouth off and think that that’s how you make change. You really have to work behind the scenes, you have to get allies, you have to plan carefully, you have to take small steps. And then as time goes on and you have more power, then you can take larger steps.