Interview with Myra Strober: Women and Work

Orley Ashenfelter has been doing a series of interviews with labor and industrial relations economists. The most recent is “Myra Strober on women, work, and feminist economics” (November 6, 2023, Episode 19, audio and transcript available). The description of her early education and career has some great stories, although some of them have a high wince coeffiencient:

When she was an undergraduate at Cornell’s School of Industrial Labor Relations in the late 1950s:

The most extraordinary experience at Cornell was freshman year, a course that we labeled Bus Riding 101. We went every Wednesday morning early on a bus to some factory within busing distance of Ithaca. And so, by the time the semester was over, we had visited a steel mill in Ithaca, a pajama factory somewhere in Pennsylvania, IBM, Corning Glass, and a coal mine where they had to get special permission for women to go down into the mine because it was considered bad luck to have women in the mines. And I have to say that exposure to work, real work by real people who were struggling, as a 18-year-old, was an extraordinary experience.

And I have to tell you that, years later, I was teaching a course in labor relations at the Stanford Business School, and we got to the part on grievance procedures. And the case that we were studying was in a chemical factory, and one of the employees was grieving because he was not permitted by the foreman to go and use the bathroom when he needed to use it. And two students in the class objected to this case. They said that they were not paying the kind of tuition that they were
paying in order to read a case about somebody who wasn’t permitted to go to the bathroom. And something clicked in my head, and I said, “How many of you have ever been inside a factory?” Not a single student in that MBA class had ever been inside a factory.

Applying to the PhD programs in economics at Harvard and MIT in the mid-1960s.

Well, I restricted my search for graduate school to Boston because my fiancé, then my husband, was a student at Harvard Medical School, and I wanted to get married and live in Boston. And so luckily for me, there were two terrific programs in economics in Boston. Harvard was a non-starter. I had an interview at Harvard. It was extremely brief. The first question the interviewer asked me was, was I normal? And I, in turn, asked him what that meant. And he said, “Oh, you know. Do you want to get married and have children?” And I said, “Well, I’m already married.” And he said, “well there you have it” and he opened the door and showed me into the hallway. So that was the end of Harvard.

MIT was different. They accepted me. I was one of three women. One of them left at the end of the year. So, there were two women in my class, and then there were two women in the class ahead of me, two women in the class behind me. And then they accepted a nun the following year, assuming that she would not get married and have children, but she fooled them. She married a man who lived across the street from her. He left the church. She left the church. And so, there was no safety for MIT.

How she moved from being a first job as a lecturer at Berkeley to a position at Stanford.

Yeah, so what had happened was before I came to Berkeley the previous spring, many women who were lecturers at Berkeley filed a complaint against Berkeley with the Labor Department for sex discrimination. So, I remember when the investigators came from the Labor Department, at first, they took a hotel room, then they decided they had to take an apartment because they’d be there for a while investigating sex discrimination at Berkeley. And so, eventually Berkeley made me an offer as an assistant professor. But Stanford did not have a suit filed against it because there were no women to file a suit.

I mean, not only did Stanford not have women faculty; they didn’t even have lecturers. So, Stanford got nervous that somehow there would be a complaint. And so I got an offer from the Stanford Business School to come and teach. I was the first woman faculty there. And that same year, in 1972, they hired their first Black man, their first Asian American man, and their first Hispanic man. So, it was a banner year. Stanford also hired the first woman faculty member in the law school and the School of Engineering. So they wanted to show that they were being good people.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, these kinds of experiences led Strober toward research interests involving the intersection of social constraints and economic motivations.

I always ask myself, “Why did the owners of steel mills in the 1890s go all the way to Eastern Europe to find new steel workers and spend money to pay their travel costs across the Atlantic and so on when they could have simply hired the wives of the current steel makers who were home ready to work?” But the idea of hiring women to work in steel mills, even though it would’ve been far more profit maximizing, they probably at that time could have even paid them less. They didn’t do it. Why not? Because social constraints were very strong. It was simply considered an impossible thing to do, to hire, recruit the wives of steelworkers or even the young daughters of steelworkers to work in those factories.

Strober has a new book out this year, Money and Love: An Intelligent Roadmap for Life’s Biggest Decisions, based in part on a course she taught for many years about life choices. In the interview with Ashenfelter, she says:

[A]lthough conventional wisdom tells you to make money decisions with your head and love decisions with your heart, in fact, for most of these really important decisions, the love and money aspects are intertwined. So, whom you marry has probably the most important effect on your career of anything you might do, and on your life, and on your family. And the idea that you marry simply for love without ever thinking about money is probably not quite correct. And so, all of these decisions need you to engage both your heart and your head. And in fact, some of the people who are most interested in this book are those that run financial advising firms because they recognize that their advisors can be far more effective if they consider family issues when they advise their clients rather than simply running the numbers and telling them what age they can retire at. So, that’s the first thing. That love and money are intertwined for all these decisions.

For more detail, see the books itself, the interview with Ashenfelter, or an interview Strober did with McKinsey earlier this year that focuses more on the themes of the book.

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