Author Talks: A lifelong labor economist shares five steps for making better choices about money and love

In this edition of Author Talks, McKinsey Global Publishing’s Molly Liebergall chats with Myra Strober, professor emerita at Stanford University and founding director of Stanford’s Clayman Institute for Gender Research, about her new book Money and Love: An Intelligent Roadmap for Life’s Biggest Decisions (HarperCollins Publishers, January 2023), cowritten by Abby Davisson. After teaching a course on work and family at Stanford for more than 40 years, Strober is sharing her notes on—and personal experience with—fighting for gender equity, making difficult choices related to work and life, and balancing the working woman’s “second shift.” An edited version of the conversation follows.

How have you combatted the ‘motherhood penalty’ throughout your career?

I am very sensitive to the issue of the motherhood penalty. When I got to Berkeley in 1970 for a job teaching economics, I was hired as a lecturer: a second-class citizen with low pay and no job security. On my first day there I saw two men who had been in my department in economics at MIT, and they were working there too, but they were both assistant professors.

I went to the chair of my department, and I asked him why this was the case. First, he told me it was because I lived in Palo Alto, which was ridiculous. When I went back a second time he said, “We can’t give you a tenure-track job here, because we don’t know what’s going to happen to you—you have an infant and a three-year-old.” I said to him, “What do you mean you don’t know what’s going to happen to me?”

It turned out that the previous spring, before I ever got to Berkeley, the women faculty members at Berkeley, almost all of whom were lecturers, got together and filed a complaint with the labor department. Shortly after my conversation with the department chair, a couple of investigators from the labor department came to Berkeley to look into this complaint.

Long story short, two years later, the Berkeley Economics Department made me an offer to come on as an assistant professor, but it turned out that Stanford—which had not had a complaint filed against it, because there weren’t enough women to file a complaint—got very nervous about the complaint against Berkeley, so Stanford decided to hire women in real positions also.

He said, ‘We can’t give you a tenure-track job here, because we don’t know what’s going to happen to you—you have an infant and a three-year-old.’ I said to him, ‘What do you mean you don’t know what’s going to happen to me?’

I got an offer from the business school at Stanford shortly after I got my offer from Berkeley. The idea of not commuting was excellent, so I accepted Stanford’s offer. When I got to Stanford, I was alienated in a big way. There were hardly any women faculty, and there were only five women students in the first-year class at the business school.

I had been working on the economics of childcare, and decided to give a seminar on that subject. At the seminar, I never got past my opening sentence, which was that childcare has external benefits, not only to the parents and children involved, but to the society as a whole, and therefore it should be subsidized in the same way that we subsidize education.

My colleagues got so infuriated with this idea that they started yelling and screaming about how outrageous this was. The man who had invited me to speak and was running the seminar never stopped them. Forty-five minutes later the seminar ended, and I hadn’t talked about the economics of childcare.

This incident led me to believe that I needed to find colleagues all across campus who were doing research on women and women’s issues, like childcare—at that time I thought of childcare as a woman’s issue, but now I think of it as a societal issue.

I became the founding director of Stanford’s Center for Research on Women. We got a lot of support from the president and provost of the university, and I’m proud to say that that organization is still flourishing. It was endowed by Michelle Clayman, who was a student at the business school and has been successful in her career in finance. It’s now called the Michelle Clayman Center for Gender Research.

What is your ‘5Cs’ framework for making decisions related to money and love?

The first C is clarify. The second C is communicate. The third one is choices—consider a broad range of choices. The fourth one is check in with family, friends, and other resources, and the fifth one is exploring the likely consequences of your decision.

First, clarify what it is you want. Clarify what it is that you’re trying to achieve here. Ask yourself lots of questions. Then, communicate about what you want with whoever else is relevant for the decision. Communication between a couple or between employer and employee can be difficult conversations about tough subjects, so I would say, listen.

Some people think communication means talking, and part of communication is talking, but the other half, which is equally important, is listening—so listen. Listen carefully, and be prepared to change your mind as a result of what you hear. In general, tread lightly. Don’t come in like a ton of bricks. Know that this is a tough time of change at work and in your family, so listen and be kind spirited.

Then, check in with other people about the decision. Broaden your horizons. Think more broadly about possible decisions [or choices] that you can make. Don’t just think in binary terms—yes or no—because maybe there’s something else. Finally, explore the consequences of your of your decision. Those are the five, and the most important one is the first one: clarify.

Why are marriage rates declining?

There are many reasons why marriage rates are declining, and they’re declining for different reasons among different segments of the population.

People are getting married later than they used to, and that’s responsible for some of the decline. People are cohabiting rather than getting married. I had a colleague who lived with her partner for a long time, but they refused to get married until it was legal in California for same-sex couples to get married. There are all kinds of reasons why people are not getting married, even though they’re together.

There are issues about the economics of marriage that prevent people from getting married. Some people don’t want to get married until they are financially stable—whatever that means to them—and it’s become more difficult to become financially stable, especially for people who have low-wage jobs.

Sometimes women don’t want to get married, because they can now earn enough on their own to support themselves, which was true for very few women in the past. Some women are happy to be single and enjoy other people’s company without being in a marriage. Now it’s even possible—and when I say possible, I mean socially acceptable—to have a child without being married. For people who want children but don’t necessarily want to be married, that’s an option for them now too.

How has the working woman’s ‘double burden’ or ‘second shift’ evolved?

In a certain way, if the second shift is about caring for family and the first shift is about doing work that earns income, women have been doing the second shift for forever. Even in hunter-gatherer societies women are gathering and caring for children, and men are hunting but not caring for children so much.

This came to be difficult when the site for women’s work was no longer the home—when women had to leave the home in order to work. Then, there really is a second shift because the woman is out of the house for part of the day and then comes back and is involved with childcare, caring for the home, buying food, cooking food, and more. That’s all the second shift.

Now, even with more women working at home, there is still a second shift because the work that most women are doing at home doesn’t allow for us to be caring for children or elders at the same time. That’s the problem: How do you care for children or for elders and still do work that requires your full concentration, which doesn’t allow you to mix that with [home care]?

What has or hasn’t changed for working women since you entered the workforce?

Abby is half my age, and we are struck all the time by the fact that all these years after I struggled with work and family issues, she is struggling with the same issues. We are surprised that although so many things have changed, there are others that have not changed.

There is still the assumption that mothers are going to be responsible for their children’s healthcare; the assumption in schools that if your child is having a problem you need to call the mother to discuss it; the assumptions by older family members that in heterosexual couples the man is going to provide the income, and the wife is going to provide the home care.

In many situations, these things have changed, but in so many they haven’t with regard to people’s expectations and with regard to how institutions think about this. Nobody would say to a young woman today what the chair of the Berkeley Economics Department said to me, which was “We don’t know what’s going to happen to you,” but they might think it, and they might act on it in a quieter way. We still have to change people’s thinking about this.

What individual actions can people take to bring about systemic change?

What my coauthor Abby Davisson’s did at her workplace, the Gap Foundation, is very important here. She did the same thing I did when I started the Center for Research on Women.

The first step is to find allies. She created a group at the Gap Foundation for people who were concerned about parenthood benefits, and they changed some of the requirements at the Gap Foundation for parents.

My colleague Debra Meyerson has a concept, which I think is very relevant here, of a tempered radical: somebody who works within the system to change the system—not an outside agitator, but a loyal employee who works with other loyal employees in a quiet but effective way to change whatever needs changing.

Abby did that at the Gap Foundation, and I did that at Stanford. The stories in our book tell you about other people who changed the culture and the institutions at their workplaces. It’s very important to realize that you’re not a prisoner of the system and that you can work with others in an effective way to change it.

If you’re a manager, don’t make assumptions about what the people who work for you want to do. Ask them. We are in a time of change. Let yourself be surprised. Ask your employee questions about what they would like and see what they say to you.

That’s why I loved my course so much. It was originally called Women and Work, and then some intrepid men took the course and said, “You need to change the title of this course. Call it Work and Family and we’ll help you recruit guys.” I thought that was wonderful, and they did help me.

By the time I stopped teaching my course at the business school at Stanford, 40 percent of my students were men. The conversations were so much better and so much more interesting.

I remember one man, who had had a fair amount of work experience, told the class very proudly that when he managed a woman who wanted to take maternity leave, he told her that he would work to help her get the longest leave possible. One of the women in the class said, “If I worked for you, I wouldn’t like that at all. I would like to have the shortest maternity leave possible and come back to work as soon as I could.” He was astonished.

The moral of the story is if you’re a manager, don’t make assumptions about what the people who work for you want to do. Ask them. We are in a time of change. Let yourself be surprised. Ask your employee questions about what they would like and see what they say to you.

What does an equitable division of labor in relationships look like?

I don’t think there’s any one division of labor that we would call equitable. People need to discuss with one another, long before they get married or decide to live together, what they think is an equitable distribution of labor in the home. If you can’t come to terms about this issue with this person who you’re thinking of living with or marrying, I think you better talk some more.

How to divide the work is a major issue in marriages. It depends on the kinds of jobs each of you have, the kinds of preferences each of you have, how many children you want, where you want to live, and how complicated your lives are.

You can’t look from the outside and say that something is or is not equitable, but you can ask the two people involved and get a sense very quickly about whether they think it’s equitable or not.

However, you can’t plan everything in advance. There’s an old Yiddish saying: “Man plans and God laughs.” Nonetheless, some planning is required. In this case, concerning the distribution of household labor, you can talk about this very intelligently early on and get a sense for if the person that you’re interested in is on your wavelength or not.

You might look at a couple and say, “This distribution is not equitable. She does too much, or he does too much.” But they may see it as equitable, or they may have plans to change it at some given point. You can’t look from the outside and say that something is or is not equitable, but you can ask the two people involved and get a sense very quickly about whether they think it’s equitable or not.

As average life expectancy rises to one hundred years old, how might the institutions of work and marriage be affected?

If we’re going to live on average to age one hundred, we are certainly not going to be retiring at 65 or anything close to 65, because we’re not going to be able to earn enough money prior to 65 to finance retirement to one hundred.

We’re going to have to rethink retirement, we’re going to have to rethink careers, and we’re going to have to rethink education. The education you get when you’re 18 to 22 is not going to satisfy your job requirements when you’re 85, so we have to think about continuing education.

We have to think about retirement in a different way, and we have to rethink work and family altogether. If you’re going to be working until, let’s say, 85, maybe you can take some years out in your 30s to raise your children full-time. Maybe that will become the model, and we’ll have to figure out how to finance that. This is an opportunity to rethink a lot of our ideas about how to combine work and family.

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