Stanford University professor Myra Strober has taken a sharp detour from the “me first” approach that has catapulted a lot of executives to the top, and to drive the point home, she has titled her new memoir “Sharing the Work.”
“For those who are fortunate, I believe it’s our responsibility to bring others along,” said Strober, a luminary in the field of feminist economics whose pioneering work has focused on family and gender issues, occupational segregation and women in the workplace.
In her memoir, subtitled “What My Family and Career Taught Me About Breaking Through (and Holding the Door Open for Others),” she writes that workplace success takes more than hard work and perseverance. It takes the legal and societal changes that she and others helped bring about.
“Not every woman wants to put up with what pioneers of my generation endured,” she writes.
Strober, 75, was the founding director of Stanford’s Clayman Institute for Gender Research and the first chair of the National Council for Research on Women, a consortium that now has more than 100 member centers.
She also has written numerous books and was president of the International Association for Feminist Economics.
In her memoir, Strober writes about how she became a feminist some 45 years ago by channeling her anger into activism. It was 1970, and the male chair of U.C. Berkeley’s economics department had just turned her down for a tenure-track position. His ostensible reason: “You live in Palo Alto.”
While driving the 50-mile journey to home, Strober had an epiphany about the real reason for her rejection: her gender. And that she had a husband and two children, ages 11 months and 3 years, to “take care of” at home.
“Wake up!” Strober told herself. Immersing herself in the writings of 19th-century feminist Elizabeth Cady Stanton and other feminists, she switched her focus from labor economics to women and work.
Strober eventually was offered a job at U.C. Berkeley, as an assistant professor, but she turned it down for a position at Stanford, where she still teaches one course a year and is a professor emerita in the graduate schools of business and education.
Myra Strober (née Hoffenberg) was born in 1941 and grew up in Brooklyn, New York, where she said she absorbed lifelong lessons from her family.
Her mother was a college graduate who worked as a school secretary and was the main breadwinner of the family. “You have to be able to support yourself,” her mother told her.
And her grandfather taught her how to revere Judaism. She remembers him explaining the V’ahavta, the prayer that follows the Shema. “It says you should love God,” he said, “[and] be kind to every single person, since each one of them has the very same piece of God in him that you have.”
But then religion taught her another lesson, one that stuck in her craw. At age 12, after years of sitting next to her grandfather at his Orthodox shul, she was “banished to the balcony” with the other women, she said in an interview. Then, after being told that she couldn’t have a bar mitzvah, she stopped attending Shabbat services and quit Hebrew school.
Meanwhile at home, Strober and her younger sister, Alice, were continually told to study hard and get good grades. However, neither of them envisioned careers in academia, a path they both took.
“I saw myself as a high school social studies teacher,” Strober said. “I had no models of women as doctors or lawyers,” let alone professors.
When her parents tried to crush her dream of going away to college — they wanted her to attend Brooklyn College, which was free — Strober threatened to stop studying. When her parents relented, Strober entered Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations, where she was tops in her class. She completed her doctorate at MIT.
Along the way, at age 22, she married Samuel Strober, and soon the couple had two children and moved across the country so he could do his medical residency. He went on to become an immunologist and a professor at the Stanford University School of Medicine.
In her memoir, Strober recalls that while her husband initially supported her decision to study for a Ph.D., he became less supportive as her career became increasingly demanding. The burden of housework and child care fell on her, and he resented being asked to provide more help, she writes.
He told her the marriage was over during a plane ride home from New York after her father’s unveiling.
At the time, she was 40. “I didn’t go into shock,” she said wryly. “I went into the restroom.”
1980-81, the year of her split, was a “peak year for divorce,” she said. One factor was that many women in her age group had married young.
Achieving peace afterward — something she and her ex-husband have done — requires forgiving oneself as well as one’s partner, and today the blended families are able to share the holidays.
Twenty-five years ago, Strober married Jay Jackman, a friend of her ex’s who had served as an usher at her first wedding. Strober said it was the rabbi at her second wedding — Ari Cartun, then the rabbi at Hillel at Stanford — who brought her “back to Judaism.”
She and Jackman later joined Reform Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills, where Strober recaptured a sense of the sacred she had experienced in her grandfather’s shul.
Ten years ago, with nine other women, Strober celebrated the bat mitzvah she had been denied in her youth.
Recalling her speech, she said, “I truly believe that it was my grandfather’s telling me that every person has a piece of God in him or her that led me to want to help other people. I try to find the piece of God in other people. Sometimes it’s hard to find, but I try.”
Myra Strober will discuss her book at 7 p.m. Wednesday, June 1 at Congregation Beth Am, 26790 Arastradero Road, Los Altos Hills. (650) 493-4661.Also 10 a.m. Sunday, June 5 at the Bay Area Book Festival, Hotel Shattuck Plaza, 2086 Allston Way, Berkeley. $5 in advance at www.baybookfest.org.