Sharon Oster, an economist who shattered glass ceilings in academia as the first woman to become a tenured professor of the Yale School of Management and later as the first woman to be named its dean, died on Friday at her home in New Haven, Conn. She was 73.
The cause was lung cancer, her daughter, Emily Oster, said.
Professor Oster challenged the 19th-century Scottish essayist Thomas Carlyle’s description of economics as “the dismal science” as she helped shape the curriculum of the management school, which began granting master of business administration degrees in the late 1990s.
As dean from 2008 to 2011, taking the post in the midst of a severe recession, she delayed increases salary, took a $100,000 pay cut and diverted the savings to subsidize internships for students and to accelerate fund-raising to construct a new building.
“I was a practical, get-it-done sort of leader, and that’s the kind of person you need in a recession,” she was quoted as saying in an article for the School of Management when she retired in 2018.
“Oster was one of the leading figures in the academic field of business and strategy — the kind of person who was equally at home in a seminar room or a board room,” said Austan D. Goolsbee, an economics professor at the University of Chicago and the former chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers in the Obama administration.
Even as a professor in the 1980s, she broadened the school’s curriculum to prepare students for careers in nonprofit organizations and explored ways in which those organizations could generate ongoing sources of revenue.
She became an expert in competitive strategy, microeconomic theory, industrial organization, the economics of regulation and antitrust, and nonprofit strategy. And as one colleague said, she examined the impact of discrimination against women through an economist’s prism.
Professor Oster argued, for example, that one reason employers denied women and members of minorities promotions was to keep their profile low so that they wouldn’t be poached by competitors eager to diversify their ranks.
Her books include “Modern Competitive Analysis” (1990); “Strategic Management for Nonprofit Organizations” (1995); and “Principles of Economics” (2011), written with Karl E. Case and her husband, Ray C. Fair, also a Yale economics professor.
Professor Oster received the school’s Award for Excellence in Teaching in 1988 and again in 2008. She won the American Economic Association’s prestigious Carolyn Shaw Bell Award in 2011, presented to “an individual who has furthered the status of women in the economics profession.”
Asked how she thrived in a mostly male environment, Professor Oster told The Financial Times in 2012, “I have a thick skin, a direct manner and a sense of humor.”
Sharon Monica Oster was born on Sept. 3, 1948, in Bethpage, NY Her father, Kurt, was a roofer. Her mother, Karin (Nelson) Oster, was a waitress.
After graduating from Bethpage High School, she received a bachelor’s degree in economics in 1970 from Hofstra University, where her professors encouraged her to pursue a career in economics and research. She earned a doctorate in economics in 1974 from Harvard, where she was one of two women in a class that enrolled about 45 men.
She joined Yale’s economics department as an assistant professor in 1974 and became a professor in the School of Organization and Management in 1982. (The name was changed to the School of Management in 1994.)
She married Professor Fair in 1977, and the couple raised their three children — two boys and a girl — by the tenets of practical economics and the ideals of feminism.
Emily Oster, an economics professor at Brown University in Providence and a best-selling author of data-driven books on parenting, told Bloomberg Businessweek in 2020 that her mother would fax the grocer a shopping list instead of wasting time meandering in the store’s aisles, And that even though their mother was the better cook, their parents would alternate making dinner to demonstrate that it wasn’t a woman’s job.
Sharon kept her own surname. “My parents flipped a coin when I was born,” Emily said. “Mom won. So I am Oster, with middle name Fair. Then they alternated for the rest of the kids.”
In addition to her daughter, Professor Oster is survived by her husband along with their sons, Stephen Fair and John Oster; her brother, Ron Oster; and eight grandchildren.
Professor Oster was a proponent of clarity, in teaching and in business.
“Befuddling someone is not convincing them,” she said. “That’s an important lesson of good management. In life, sometimes you can get someplace by befuddling people, but it’s not a good long-run strategy. Much better to be able to get to the right answer,” she added, “and be able to explain why it’s the right answer.”