Men’s studies

I’ve zipped through Myra Strober’s , propelled both by enjoying this memoir of a life as an academic economist and by righteous anger. (In fact, I’m posting this review 3 weeks too early on the tide of this sentiment.*)

Professor Strober embarked on her career in the late 1960s, and was therefore one of the pioneering feminists to whom my generation owes so much. The book starts with her initial experience at Berkeley, being told by the department chairman that she will never get tenure – ostensibly because she lives in Palo Alto, in reality because she has children. The shock of realising the truth on her drive home across the Bay Bridge launches her into a commitment to feminism in general and to tackling the sexism of economics and the academic world in particular.

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This is not an angry, polemical book at all. It’s a warm and readable memoir about family and friends as well as career and the politics of gender. Professor Strober grew up in Brooklyn in a loving family, and was the first to go to college and graduate school. She tells of the tensions of moving away from that background, and also the tensions in her marriage to an ambitious medical student and researcher – a marriage which eventually ended in divorce. Athough not at all bitter in the telling, the book is a reminder of how hard it was for a woman to combine career and children. (It still is – just think about the relatively small proportion of prominent women who have children.)

Thanks in part to the battles fought by earlier cohorts of women, the sexism we face in the workplace today is as nothing compared to those early days of the struggle for recognition. But the anger reading this book kicked in when I reflected on the continuing male dominance of economics in particular – our proportion of women being closer to computer science and mathematics than to any other social or natural science. Just as I finished reading I happened upon this reflection on getting tenure written by Ellen Meara. Nor is this a US issue – it’s as true in the UK and EU. Economics has a women problem – as Justin Wolfers and Noah Smith among others have noted – and that means economics has a problem. A subject done by men about men can’t claim to be either social or a science.

There is, I think, some recognition of the problem in the economics establishment, and some well-meaning efforts to address it. However, these efforts do not yet extend to a wide acknowledgement of some fundamental points – above all that there is something wrong with the (mainly male) insiders’ definition of what makes for ‘good’ economics.

At the end of last year I sent a survey to about 30 teachers of economics in high schools, asking what they thought were the main barriers to girls choosing to study economics at university; for although the total number of people doing economics degrees has been rising in the UK, the proportion who are female has been declining. The single most popular reply was that it was the ‘character of the subject’. I recounted this to a highly sympathetic and non-sexist male colleague. “Well,” he replied, “It’s not clear to me that there’s anything to be done about this.” That’s the problem. If the trend continues, we’re going to have to rename economics ‘men’s studies’.

I admire Professor Strober for spending her career actively doing something about it. This is a book to inspire all female economists and give all male economists pause for thought. now!

* It’s 22 April for the Kindle edition – the hardback will be out in mid-May.

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One thought on “Men’s studies

  1. There is a lot to do about the character of economics, but this is just to report an anecdote. Joan Rivers, the formidable middle-aged economics professor, accepted an invite to speak at another college. The staff tried taking her to a female strip club as a “joke” and somewhere there is an account of how they tried to get used to someone who was a girl but didn’t act like one.

    She usually turned invites down, but accepted one from Stamford studens where she preferred to spend her time with students rather than teachers, and where her course was described as good at proving to students that they weren’t stupid if they disagreed with the main course. I saw this on some journal post on Jstor. If anyone is interested I’ll try to track-down the reference.

    Oh, my mum in the late 30s was told that she couldn’t go to university and be a blue-stocking because she didn’t have a latin qualification; suitable jobs were to be an almaner or a governess.

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