Stanford Report Online

Stanford Report, April 10, 2002

'Difficult Dialogues' bridges worlds of academics, policy


Education Professor Myra Strober's lecture on "A Feminist Economic View of Work and Family" is part of a new initiative that the Institute for Research on Women and Gender (IRWG) is launching on "The Changing Structure of the Family." The program follows the conclusion of a two-year project on aging in America headed by psychology Professor Laura Carstensen, former IRWG director. Both are part of the institute's "Difficult Dialogues" program that aims to pinpoint key issues in potentially contentious fields.

"We're trying to establish a dialogue between academics and policy makers," Carstensen said. "We're never going to get it right if we don't get the questions right."

During the first project, experts from Stanford and other institutions looked at different aspects of aging. One of the group's key findings was that the process is systemically related to gender and race. "Tacitly, age is presumed to be the great equalizer," Carstensen said. However, "in old age, more so than any other life stage, the cumulative effects of lifetimes of discrimination and societal practices are strikingly evident. [For example,] 37 percent of older African American women live in poverty." Furthermore, women tend to live longer than men -- women 85 years and older outnumber men 100 to 39.

As a result, Carstensen said, social and public policies should be framed to consider ethnically diverse constituencies comprised primarily of women. The group's consensus report has been distributed to the National Institute on Aging, the National Academy of Sciences and the Gerontological Society of America -- organizations that work closely with policy makers. "We feel incredibly positive that the report will make a difference," she said.

In the second project, which is expected to last about three years, academics will try to define core issues affecting the changing structure of the family, Carstensen said. Policies in this country are structured for the "traditional" nuclear family -- defined as a racially homogenous, legally married mother, father and their biological children. However, fewer than 22 percent of Americans live in such families. "The diversity of the country is a big issue," Carstensen said. "'One size fits all' is not going to work. We will not serve American families if we don't understand what American families are."

Strober is a member of the new "Difficult Dialogues" group, which also includes law Associate Professor Richard Banks; medical Professor Linda Giudice; psychology Professor Emerita Eleanor Maccoby; education Professor Amado Padilla; IRWG scholar Michele Pridmore-Brown; psychology Assistant Professor Jeanne Tsai; anthropology Professor Sylvia Yanagisako; and psychology Professor Esther Rothblum of the University of Vermont.

In addition to the core group, experts will be invited to attend closed-door sessions during the project. However, participants will share their research and interests during the Jing Lyman Lectures, which are free and open to the public. Pridmore-Brown will deliver the next talk on "The Bio-Politics of Late Motherhood" at noon April 24 in Oak West Lounge in Tresidder Union. SR