Economist Myra Strober and the “gentlemanly smile”

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Still smiling … Myra today.

At the time she began her career in economics, the Myra Strober was one of the very few women in the field. “I had no idea it was so male. None,” the Stanford labor economist told a crowded audience at the Bechtel Conference Center on April 19. She went on to become the founding director of the Clayman Institute for Gender Research (then the Center for Research on Women, or CROW) and first chair of the National Council for Research on Women, a consortium of about 65 U.S. centers for research on women.

The subject of her April talk was her new book, Sharing The Work: What My Career And Family Taught Me About Breaking Through (And Holding The Door Open For Others). Myra told me about her writing her memoir some time ago, so in a sense I’ve known this book since it was a baby – little more than a thought in Myra’s mind.

Her story is inspiring, but the tale I remembered best is the one that takes place in 1979, when she returned to CROW as director, and had a new boss, the vice provost for research, Jerry Lieberman. It shows us that maybe we have indeed come a long way.

From her book:

From the start, it’s clear that Jerry is extremely supportive of CROW and wants to serve as my mentor. Jerry and I are both from New York, and he says he needs to explain to me why he had to change his New York style to be successful at Stanford, and why I will have to change mine. In New York, he tells me, people can just argue outright, and the loudest screamer wins. Not so at Stanford, he counsels, with a smile. He had to learn to argue “like a gentleman,” softly, and I have to learn that, too.
strober-book

“Everything at Stanford is understated,” he says. “Tough, but gentlemanly and understated.”

I understand what he’s saying. I’ve also noticed a big difference between the New York and Stanford styles. I appreciate this conversation with Jerry, and it becomes a source of humor throughout our relationship. Whenever either of us bargains hard and loudly, we admonish the other to “put away” the New York style and become more Stanford-like.

***

In 1972, Jerry Lieberman, my former boss at CROW and now the university’s provost, asks me to chair a new ad hoc committee he is forming on the recruitment and retention of women faculty. Women now make up 16 percent of the Stanford faculty, twice the percentage they were when I first arrived, but still low compared with our peer institutions. Jerry wants me to lead the committee in figuring out what Stanford can do to raise that percentage and keep it growing.

The committee’s charge is broad, and its male and female members, prominent faculty from all over the university, have quite varied opinions. After several meetings, we decide to focus our efforts on junior faculty. We break up into groups of two or three, with at least one woman and one man in each, and conduct focus groups with both men and women assistant professors.

What we hear is disturbing. Junior faculty tell us that they feel the absence of what committee members begin to term a “culture of support.” Although Stanford departments make heroic efforts to recruit the very best junior faculty they can, including young scholars from other countries, once those faculty arrive and take up their posts, senior faculty in their departments often pay them little mind, perhaps not even reading their work. Both junior women and junior men tell this tale. On the other hand, there are several problems unique to women: encountering the extra scrutiny given to people in the minority, fending off sexual harassment, and being underpaid.

The committee feels that the charges of underpayment are serious, and I bring up the matter in a meeting with Jerry, remembering his counsel years earlier that I negotiate “like a gentleman,” not like a former New Yorker.

“In our focus groups, a lot of the women faculty we talked to said they feel they’re underpaid, but we can’t verify that the university pays women less than men at the same stage of their career unless we have salary data by gender for each school.”

Serra House

The Clayman Center at Serra House.

No way,” he says. “Salary information is confidential.”

Well, that may be,” I say in my most gentle way, “but you appointed this committee to make suggestions about improving the hiring and retention of women faculty, and it looks like one reason women may be leaving Stanford is that they feel underpaid.”

OK, I’ll take a look at the data and see.”

Jerry, you can look at the data anytime. But you appointed a committee to help you with this. We need to look at the data.”

Silence.

We don’t need names, you know, just numbers.”

I smile my most “gentlemanly” smile.

After several go-rounds, we compromise. Jerry agrees to provide a series of scatter plots of full professors’ salaries, by years of experience, in five fields: humanities, social sciences and education, science, clinical medicine, and nonclinical medicine. In each scatter plot, any dot that represents a woman is circled in black. That way, we can see the overall distribution of salaries in a particular field as well as the distribution of women’s salaries. No such plots have ever been prepared, but Jerry asks members of his staff to create them.

He allows only three members of our committee to look at the data with him, and he won’t permit any of us to take the plots out of his office. What we see is crystal clear, and we don’t need much time or analysis to understand the pattern. At all levels of experience, women are overrepresented in the lowest quintile of the salary distribution and underrepresented in the highest. I’m not at all surprised, but Jerry is, and so are many of the deans to whom he shows the plots. Indeed, the creation of those simple quintile plots becomes the first step in Stanford’s emerging efforts to redress salary discrimination. Jerry creates a fund that deans can draw on for salary equity raises, and over the next few years, many women faculty, including me, find that our paychecks are substantially increased.


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One Response to “Economist Myra Strober and the “gentlemanly smile””

  1. Diyet Listesi Says:

    I recommend you read this book . It will change your point of view .
    Strober, Myra H (1972). Economists and unions – discussion (issue 316 of research paper). Graduate School of Business, Stanford University.

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