Claudia Goldin

How can we better understand the gender gap? 

Photo of Claudia Goldin

Claudia Goldin

At a glance

Born: 1946, New York, USA

Field: Economic history, labor economics

Awarded: The Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel, 2023

Prize-winning work: Having advanced our understanding of women’s labor market outcomes

That’ll do, pig: Babe, the 1995 film about a pig who wants to herd sheep, remains one of her favorite movies

In a different life: She enrolled in college with the hopes of becoming a bacteriologist

Underground hit: Her paper, The Pollution Theory of Discrimination, may not be her most famous work but it’s one she’s most proud of

Just because we can't see something doesn't mean it isn't there. This fundamental truth has guided the work of Claudia Goldin, a labor economist and economic historian, whose research has addressed missing data and the often-invisible barriers and deep-rooted social dynamics that have shaped persistent gender disparities. In speaking to Goldin, she avows she’s not a pioneer and stands on the shoulder of giants. Small only in stature, Goldin is not only a giant in her own right, but she has also left an indelible mark on the field of economics.

What inspired Claudia Goldin's pioneering research on gender disparities? 

Goldin’s path to researching the gender gap began with work focused on emancipation and the economics of slavery in the United States. “Many economic historians were working on what happened to the labor supply of newly freed individuals after the Civil War and the degree to which the decline in income in the South was due to the fact that finally, a large group of individuals, just about half of the southern labor force, could do what they had preferred to do, rather than what they were forced to do,” says Goldin.

While in the Development of the American Economy Program at the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) during the late 1970s, early 80s – she would go on to lead the program from 1989 to 2017 – Goldin began her work on the history of women in the American labor force with an important group in mind, Black women. This decision set in motion research that would span decades, lay the groundwork for her first book, and ultimately lead to Goldin being awarded the most prestigious award in the field, the Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences.

It was even more interesting because it wasn't as if the data that we had were telling us the truth about what happened to women in the labor force.

How has women's labor force participation changed historically?

Goldin published her findings in the 1990 book, Understanding the Gender Gap. “When we think about the gender gap today, we think about earnings,” she says. “The gender gap of the title is not so much about earnings as it is about labor force participation and what we call the extensive margin, which is whether you're in the labor force or not, and the intensive margin – once you’re in the labor force, how many hours do you work, are you full time, part time, overtime.”

At the time when Goldin kicked off this work, the fraction of women in the labor force was more than 50 percent. Looking through historical data from the early 20th century, the fraction of women who said they had an occupation was closer to five percent.

“Well, that’s a huge change,” she says. “The first thing was to understand why there was this very large change, but if you think harder about it, you think how is this possible? If I look back to 1900, people were poorer, surely the women were employed for more than that. I knew that I was doing something extremely important.”

“That was the other reason that I got involved in this,” Goldin continues. “It was even more interesting because it wasn't as if the data that we had were telling us the truth about what happened to women in the labor force.”

To counter the claims purported in the data, Goldin began diving deeper into history and looking at different data sources. She also knew a few key facts from the beginning. First, there wasn’t a clear definition of what was meant by being in the labor force or not until the 1930s and 1940s, and so many women who likely were in the labor force simply didn’t see themselves as someone in the labor force because their work didn’t align with what was seen as an occupation at the time. Secondly, she knew that the five percent was not an intersectional number.

“We know [the rate of employment] was higher for Black women,” she says. “So, this would have been white women. What about immigrant women? What about industrial homework? What about being a boarding house keeper? So, I started thinking about the fact that there was a vast undercount of employment and that I should go and put people back into the labor force, trying to understand what women actually did that would have gotten included in gross national product.”

What is the U-shaped curve of women's labor participation?

What Goldin discovered, which built on the work of other labor economists including the likes of Ester Boserup, a Danish economist, was that women’s employment in the paid labor force is U-shaped, a theory that posits women’s participation is higher when the home and the market are one. “When people have family farms, family firms, women are in the labor force a lot more, but we don't necessarily measure that,” she says. “And then as the market expands, as larger firms draw individuals from the home into the labor market, it's the men who leave first and the women are at home.”

It's my sense that we do better when we involve many different aspects of theory and let the data tell us and let history tell us what the correct way is to look at it.

The way in which economists generally think about changes in employment is the standard labor leisure choice model, Goldin explains. That as the opportunity cost of time increases, as your wage increases, you then reduce the time that you spend in the home, and you increase the amount of time you spend in the labor market.

“My work expands on that and says, well, we can use that, but we have to change the income and substitution effects by looking more at history and understanding how those were influenced by various social norms and stigmas,” she says. “This combines two ways of thinking about the world of work, both this standard, what we might call the neoclassical model, and also a less standard model in which we think about social norms and stigma. It's my sense that we do better when we involve many different aspects of theory and let the data tell us and let history tell us what the correct way is to look at it.”

What role does education play in labor force participation?

It was while Goldin was studying the female labor force that she also became interested in education, a natural progression as the two are intrinsically linked. She wanted to understand how it was that women in the US gained enough education to flood the labor market in the nineteen-teens and the 1920s. She also wanted to map the history of women’s education, as she had done with their participation in the labor force.

“Education does many things,” says Goldin. “First and foremost, it gives you the skills. Hopefully you absorb them. You learn, you're a changed individual. But in addition, it may also indicate to others that you can do that. Once women entered white-collar work and had more education, the stigma, the social norm that married women shouldn't work was in some cases reduced, but often simply eliminated.”

No one had ever seen a tenured woman in economics in the Harvard Economics department before I arrived here.

What are the challenges facing women in the workforce?

Gender and societal norms take time to change, and many barriers simply evolve alongside the progress being made. While some of the challenges facing women have certainly disappeared, the major challenges for women are often the same over time, according to Goldin. She mentions by-gone rules like those in countless school districts that said once a woman married, she would have to resign, or the nepotism rules that prohibited married women to work at universities or in federal or state government if their spouse was employed there. The difficulty with many of these rules, even the regulatory ones, is tracking them as they were often not written down.

“These rules are easier to track by people's biographies and a lot of the information that I gathered was from people's biographies,” Goldin explains. “I was depicted by the Nobel committee as a historical detective and that really is the way I think of my work. You know that something’s important, but the question is, how can you find evidence? Sometimes it’s very difficult.”

Many of the challenges that have persisted are linked to the fact that women are still the major caregivers, according to Goldin. “The challenges are combining career and family,” she says. “At some point in the past, it would have been combining a job and a family or combining work at all and a family. Challenges that are even more important today concern the challenges of being a single mom.”

I was depicted by the Nobel committee as a historical detective and that really is the way I think of my work.

The concept of greedy jobs and their impact

It was thinking more of challenges like these that set her down a new path. Looking at different birth cohorts – groups of people that are born at various times – Goldin examined the evolution of how individuals in these cohorts, who had pursued education, were able to combine a family with a career or job.

“I’m interested in the degree to which women have aspirations to do something and the degree to which they face or knock down barriers,” she says.

The first group, graduating at the beginning of the twentieth century, had either one or the other. Another group, those who graduated college in the late 40s to the 60s, were able to have a family first and then what Goldin refers to as “a pretty good job, but not always what they would have considered a career.” The group who graduated in the late 60s and 70s – the cohort Goldin is included in – were the first to pursue both a family and career simultaneously. Both the role of the contraceptive pill and expansions in the education of women are extremely important here, according to Goldin. The biggest barriers that these different sex couples faced, she found, was one of gender equity.

“Work is often very greedy,” she says. “And what I mean by that is that the more hours you put in, the degree to which you give up your time on vacation or weekends, the degree to which you're on call in the office, the more you earn. Both members of this different sex couple could take that greedy job and they'll be doing really, really well. But if there are care responsibilities that require, as they do, one parent to be on call at home, then one person has to take a [more flexible] position.”

It's generally the woman who takes the flexible job and the man who takes the greedy job. They throw gender equality under the bus.

Whether a job is greedy or not is determined within firms. Goldin uses the example of a lawyer. A lawyer could be working in a high-pressure law firm or they might be working in a low pressure law firm. It’s not necessarily the position, occupation, or industry itself, it’s more closely tied to the amenities and policies of the specific firm. Jobs that are more flexible typically pay less, and there is a value in the flexibility, particularly for those with care responsibilities.

“Going back to this couple, they can't both take the greedy job,” she continues. “They can both take the flexible job. They can keep couple equity but give up income. But in general, the different sex couple is enticed to have one of the members of the couple take the greedy job. That then means they give up couple equity because it's generally the woman who takes the flexible job and the man who takes the greedy job. They throw gender equality under the bus.”

How can we close the gender gap?

While there are policies and practices that could move us towards closing the gender gap, Goldin doesn’t think there is a panacea. A hyper fixation on work and seeing labor force participation as something that exists in a vacuum, is part of why these barriers persist the way they do.

“It's my sense that knowing what the problem is may not tell us what the solution is,” she says. “Part of the solution is about jobs themselves. Another part of the solution is about the world of care. In some countries, care is thought to be more of a community responsibility than in the United States where we privatize everything.”

The pace of economic and social change can vary greatly and the pace of change itself is another factor that must be taken into account. According to Goldin, when there is rapid economic and social change, the gendered and generational conflicts are bound to be larger.

“In a place like the United States, where we had a Civil War, but we haven’t had many revolutions, change has been very slow. When change is slow, it means that my beliefs and my mother's beliefs may be different, but they're not that different,” she says. “When you have a country like Korea, Japan, and certainly China, which have undergone enormously rapid change, it means that the aspirations of young people and the aspirations of their parents may be very different. The aspirations of women and those of men may be different.”

Examining the gender gap within economics

Speaking to a labor economist about the labor force will always lead to a fruitful discussion. Speaking to a female labor economist about the representation of women within economics – and particularly if that economist is one of only three female Nobel Laureates in the field and the first and only solo prize winner to date – provides for a rich, nuanced discussion. Goldin ran a program where one of the goals was to provide more accurate information to undergraduate students, both men and women, about the range of subjects one can study within economics and how those subjects concern people.

“One of the reasons that women have not gone into economics in graduate programs is that they often didn't major in economics, and they didn't major in economics because they thought economics was about finance,” says Goldin. “I often hear from young women, ‘Oh, I don't want to go into economics because it doesn't concern people.’ But economics certainly does concern people.”

With the academic field of economics, it’s a known fact that women go into certain subfields like labor and health whereas men disproportionately go into others like econometrics and macroeconomics. Goldin wants better representation within the fields, but also of the fields themselves. In addition to being a lucrative field, she says majoring in economics is good for the mind. “It teaches you a tremendous amount about the way the world works,” she says.

Finding and focusing on the things that matter

With such an impressive collection of work, it’s reasonable to wonder how much time is left for leisure. But Goldin is quick to reassure that balance is a necessary part of the life she has built with Lawrence Katz, her husband and fellow economist, and their Golden Retriever Pika, a mini celebrity in his own right. Goldin is frequently photographed with Pika, he was featured in Nobel illustrations announcing her win, and he has his own subpage on her Harvard profile.

“I have fun all the time,” she says. “Larry and I are always birding, whenever we’re walking, we’re birding. We also have Pika and for many years I trained Pika to do performance work, I trained him to be a competitor, and that was a real passion of mine.”

For Goldin, success seems not so much a preoccupation, but rather a byproduct of sound scientific work. Balancing time for fun and time for work is something she allows herself to do while also viewing the opportunity to do both as a luxury. “I think about the small pleasures,” she says. “I'm a person who engages in a lot of small pleasures.”

When asked of the legacy she hopes she’s building, she begins by likening herself to a juggler with a world of ideas and a world of data at her disposal. Sometimes those ideas come from the literature she’s reading, sometimes they come from new data sources.

“If I can impart anything to my students, it’s don’t rush into something,” she says. “Don't think that just because you found data that there's a question that you can answer, and just because you have the question doesn't mean that you have crafted this correctly. I want people to realize that sometimes they have to have everything in the air at the same time and that projects should be thought of as a crafting venture.”

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