Posts Tagged ‘Myra Strober’

Economist Myra Strober and the “gentlemanly smile”

Friday, April 29th, 2016

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.

“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.”


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.

“A Company of Authors” – a pleasant afternoon of classy books this Saturday. Be there!

Wednesday, April 13th, 2016

Our hero, Peter Stansky.

It’s that time. Peter Stansky‘s annual “A Company of Authors” is happening this Saturday, April 16, from 1 to 5 p.m. at the Stanford Humanities Center, 424 Santa Teresa Street on the Stanford campus. The annual event gathers Stanford authors from the previous year to present and discuss their books.


Encore, Marilyn!

I’m particularly looking forward to Myra Strober‘s new memoir, Sharing the Work and Albert Gelpi’s American Poetry After Modernism. I’ve heard Marilyn Yalom and Theresa Donovan Brown speak about The Social Sex: A History of Female Friendship  before, and also Edith Gelles on Abigail Adams‘s letters (we’ve written about Marilyn here and here and here, and Edie here) – I look forward to doing so again. It’s always fun.

So many people on this list I really want to see this weekend … oh, I could go on and on. What’s that you say? Why, yes, yes … Humble Moi will be speaking at 2:45 p.m. on “The Wonderful World of Books at Stanford.” I’ll be talking about the wondrous success of the “Another Look” book club which brings little-known or overlooked masterpieces to the Bay Area community – and which, I might add (and I will), has received international coverage. I’ve written about the open book club – which focuses on a series of public events –  here and here and here and here, among a zillion other places.

Anyway, great fun, and the Stanford Boostore will be selling the books in the lobby – at a 10% discount, too.


“Brave choices” for Japanese women: megastar Agnes Chan speaks at Stanford

Saturday, August 10th, 2013

She won.

Marissa Mayer at Yahoo? Sheryl Sandberg at Facebook? It’s nothing compared to what women face in Japan, trying to juggle home and family.  Ask Agnes Chan.

I’ve known the Asian powerhouse for a quarter-century now (I’ve written about her here and here and here, among other places).  I usually describe her to my friends as a Chinese rock star from Tokyo, but she’s much more than that – for example, she’s Japan’s very successful UNICEF ambassador, in addition to a singer-songwriter, a television personality and host, a newspaper and magazine columnist, a lecturer, a professor, and the author of sixty-or-so  books (I lose count).  More recently, she’s been battling international child pornography and trafficking as she continues her worldwide charity missions.  She began as a refugee from mainland China, and has known charity from both sides: her large family accepted powdered milk and rice from the missions. While still a schoolgirl at the Maryknoll Convent School in Hong Kong, she was picked out for pop star fame at 14.  She relocated to Japan a few years later, and married her manager.  As I wrote some years ago:

It was her starring role in the “Agnes controversy,” though, that earned her the most fame—and a measure of infamy. The episode erupted in February 1988, about three months after the birth of her first child. Chan, by then a celebrity with a half-dozen regular TV gigs, began bringing her son and a nanny to the television studio so she could nurse the baby in her dressing room. The arrangement enraged Japanese conservatives, who thought Chan should stay at home with her son. Feminists turned on her, too, accusing her of presuming to speak for working women who didn’t have the same economic advantages.

The outcry, which sparked a national debate about work and family, was the 32-year-old Chan’s first taste of public disapproval. Devastated, she found herself re-evaluating her life and career. “Normally, public figures who are women would not be so public about having children so they could avoid damaging their ‘image,’ ” Chan says in her soft, slightly lilting English. “I was very open about it.” A compilation of news accounts about the episode, Reading the Agnes Controversy, sold 100,000 copies in its first three months.

Chan decided the best way to cope with the crisis would be to learn more about the job-family conflicts working mothers faced. Her brother-in-law, a Hong Kong cardiologist, called a colleague at Stanford to ask if his friend knew anyone on campus studying such issues. That’s how Chan ended up having a half-hour transpacific telephone chat in January 1989 with [Stanford economist Myra]  Strober, who had recently published her findings on the work and family choices of members of Stanford’s Class of ’81.


Half of Myra, half of Agnes…

That’s where we met.  She revisited Stanford last month for the annual conference of the International Association of Feminist Economics, and recalled the kerfuffle of the 1980s, before she came for a PhD from Stanford.  “The pebble I threw into the pond rippled throughout Japan and facilitated the passing of the Equal Chance employment law for men and women and later the right to take time off after childbirth for parents.”

Despite Japan’s crashing demographics, not many women are taking advantage of the new opportunities.  Agnes said that more than 70 percent of women with jobs continue to work after marriage, but with the birth of their first child, only about a third continue to work. After the second child, slightly less than a quarter, and among women with three children, only about 13 percent.  Women do about 84.3 percent of the housework, including child rearing, cooking, and cleaning. That’s less then men in any other developed country.  Japan ranks 101st in gender equality among 135 countries surveyed by the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report last year.  When women view having children as the end of their careers, as well as an economic hit on their household, not having children at all becomes a more appealing option.

Japan’s Prime Minister Abe has made women’s increased participation in society a pillar in Japan’s economic recovery plan – however, says Agnes, “Political will by itself will not be sufficient … There will need to be affirmative action, with goals and timetables, and penalties for failure.” Any success on the horizon?  Yes, says Agnes, “a growing realization that Japan cannot survive without women working at the work place and giving birth to children.”

“So that brings me back to the ‘Agnes Controversy.’ I raised three children and stayed working. When my eldest son turned 20 years old, coming of age in Japan, a prominent journalist in Japan publicly apologized to me for being anti-Agnes during the controversy.  Continuing to work and also giving birth are now seen more as brave choices rather than selfish acts.  After 26 years, more people believe that successful and powerful women with children should not be seen as intimidating, but as inspiration.

The “Agnes Controversy” was made more immediate to those in the room by the Agnes’ tech assistant for the morning – none other than the former baby-in-question, Arthur Kaneko, now working in the world of finance.  Arthur towers over his elegantly delicate mother, and clearly out-maneuvers her in technology.  But he’ll never out-maneuver her in fashion. Agnes’s trendy, whimsical white suit with transparent sleeves, a rhinestone watch fob, and a ruffled tuxedo-like shirt was a showstopper.   He confided to me that it was “among the more muted choices” in the Shibuya emporium where she shops in Tokyo.

Agnes Chan: “One child safe is one child safe.”

Monday, January 9th, 2012

The object of a hate campaign (Photo: My Droid)

Agnes Chan is one of my favorite people (I’ve written about her here and here, among other places), but she’s virtually unknown in the U.S.

The Chinese megastar from Tokyo is Japan’s UNICEF ambassador, known around the world for her hands-on humanitarian work.  During our two-hour visit today at the Stanford Bookstore cafe, she discussed her recent work in Somalia, India, and China.

Her call at Stanford was not a humanitarian mission, however: her second son is a freshman (he was born at Stanford University Hospital), her oldest son is an alumnus, and she herself picked up a PhD in education in 1994.

The singer and songwriter hosts television programs in Japan, writes extensively for the media, and has authored about scores of  books.  At Stanford, she co-authored The Road Winds Uphill All the Way: Gender, Work, and Family in the United States and Japan with Myra Strober (it was published by MIT Press in 1999) .

On her travels, she regularly works with the diseased, the maimed, the hopeless, and the helpless. As I wrote six years ago:

How does she cope in the face of such intractable problems? “I take it one day at a time,” she said on a recent visit to Stanford. “One child safe is one child safe. One happy day for a child is one happy day for a child. I’m happy to collect one more dime. No effort is…” she pauses. Muda, she says, looking for the English equivalent to the Japanese word, although her native language is English. She tries “worthless” and finally settles for “wasted.”

“Every effort you make will somehow add up; it will help somebody somewhere. I think every single step counts.” It seems to: since she was named to the post in 1998, Japan’s committee has become UNICEF’s No. 1 fund raiser world­wide despite a period of economic decline, collecting $130 million last year.

When I asked Myra about her work some years ago, the economist said, “I think it feels very simple to her.  I don’t think she understands why it should be complex.  The world is not as it should be, and those more fortunate should help.”

Agnes’s most recent cause is closer to home:  a campaign to reform Japanese law and criminalize not only the sale and manufacture of child pornography, but also its possession and purchase.  Japan has been notoriously over-the-top with child pornography, in “live” and animated versions:

For a long time, Japanese society has been quiet about this issue, which is generally seen as taboo. Children’s advocates have been vocal in countering those who would prefer to keep subjects like child pornography hidden.

Among the advocates adding their voices to the campaign is singer and activist Dr. Agnes Chan. As a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador for Japan, Dr. Chan has been working on the issue of child pornography for many years; she sees it as one of the central children’s rights causes in the country.

“Japan is known to be one of the largest exporters and buyers of child pornography, and the law is insufficient. It needs to be changed,” Dr. Chan said, adding that preventing the production and sale of child pornography isn’t enough if it’s still permissible to possess or buy the images.

She told me the astonishing range of vitriol that has been directed against her – a hate campaign that has included spamming, threats to her life, and ridicule of her looks and her age, even accusations that she’s jealous of the children.  I had trouble believing that anyone could be even annoyed at the bright and effervescent star, so I did a quick google search when I got home and found this, among others – “The Dictatorial Melancholy of Agnes Chan.” For sexism, racism, and many other kinds of ism’s it’s hard to beat:

So, we again have the pleasure to meet Agnes Chan, ex-would-be singer, current TV and radio mascot for several shows who, in her spare time, puts on her robe and her wizard hat and sternly tries to get the carrot out of her ass by fighting against pornography.

Former fail-bikini girl congratulated the recent loli ban, letting loose her deep Chinese mentality by stating that “People who think of children’s nudity as a tool don’t need freedom of expression.” Now, Agnes Obaa-sama, we know that in China freedom of expression owns you, but let’s not mix up, like you obviously do, real life things (which, by the way, are handled with more success by authorities, not by some random aging female who happens to be at THAT time of the month), with anime and manga. The difference should be obvious even for mentally impaired people.

Tomorrow: Meet the authors, and celebrate birthdays with Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Nabokov, and St. George

Friday, April 22nd, 2011

“Cry God for Harry, England, and Saint George!”

Tomorrow, April 23, is William Shakespeare‘s birthday.  It’s also William Wordsworth‘s birthday, and Vladimir Nabokov‘s birthday – and St. George’s Day, to boot.

It’s also the 8th annual “A Company of Authors” celebration at the Stanford Humanities Center, an all-afternoon gig celebrating the variety, richness and importance of the books produced by the Stanford community.  (More on the event here.)

This year’s auspicious date is not entirely a coincidence.  George Orwell biographer Peter Stansky, who founded the event along with the late, lamented Associates of the Stanford University Libraries, was particularly pleased by the possibilities offered by the juxtaposition.

Peter will open the event by reading a poem by George Steiner about the wisdom of choosing one’s birthday – you see, it’s Steiner’s birthday, too.

The event was inspired by the Los Angeles Times Book Fair and the annual Humanities Center Book party.  There’s a difference, however: the books will be available for sale at a 10 percent discount.  The fête kicks off at 1 p.m., and it’s free at the Humanities Center on Santa Teresa, and the company will be excellent, if I do say so myself.

“It is open to all who wish to come and learn more about the authors’ thinking behind their work, would like to chat with the authors in the periods between sessions and have the opportunity to purchase their books,” he said.  It has another purpose – “and that we can all feel that somehow we are in the tradition of Shakespeare!”

Authors include:  Charlotte Jacobs, Henry Kaplan and the Story of Hodgkin’s Disease;

Birthday boy

Susan Krieger, Traveling Blind; William Kays, Letters from a Soldier; Gabriella Safran, Wandering Soul: The Dybbuk’s Creator: S. An-sky; Abbas Milani, Myth of the Great Satan and The Shah; Ian Morris, Why the West Rules—For Now; Karen Wigen, A Malleable Map; Elena Danielson, The Ethical Archivist; Jack Rakove, Revolutionaries; Karen Offen, Globalizing Feminisms; Myra Strober,  Interdisciplinary Conversations; Stina Katchadourian, The Lapp King’s Daughter; Dan Edelstein, The Enlightenment: A Genealogy; Herbert Lindenberger, Situating Opera: Period, Genre, Reception; Debra Satz, Why Some Things Shouldn’t Be for Sale.  And you guessed it, Humble Moi – Cynthia Haven for An Invisible Rope: Portraits of Czeslaw Milosz.

No RSVP needed

According to Peter, “Most importantly in my view, the books reflect the most important aspect of the University: the life of the mind which sometimes gets forgotten in the many day to day events that take place at Stanford. In my view, this event represents the essence of the University.”

It is also J.M.W. Turner‘s birthday as well as Shirley Temple‘s, which he doesn’t mention.  “Perhaps you can arrange for Shirl ey Temple to come,” he suggested to me.  Do you think?

Postscript:  I know, I know … Shakespeare’s birthday is conjecture, based on his April 26 christening.  Usually, in the 16th century, a birth was followed post haste by a christening in anticipation of instant death.  And, given that he died on April 23, and that April 23 was St. George’s day, and, after all, he did need a birthday – the world fixed on April 23rd.  Good enough for me.  Hope for you, too.  See you tomorrow.

Postscript on 4/23/2013  We mistakenly reported that Alexander Pushkin‘s birthday is on April 23.  Wrong!  It’s June 6, 1799 (what a pleasant way to usher in a new century!)  The error has been corrected.  Thank you, Tatiana Pahlen, for pointing it out to us.