Claudia Goldin: a cross-disciplinary detective

Best known for her work on the gender earnings gap, the Nobel laureate combines insights from both economics and history to interpret the present through the lens of the past. 

Wendy Cooper, guest author
4 minutes
A woman with glasses and documents is speaking in front of a wall with the Harvard University logo.
Harvard professor Claudia Goldin was awarded the 2023 Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences for "having advanced our understanding of women's labour market outcomes." © Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard University

Claudia Goldin always wanted to be a detective.

As a small child, she was determined to become an archaeologist so she could unlock the secrets of the mummies at the American Museum of Natural History in her native New York. At high school her interests broadened to encompass biological sciences because "microscopic mummies were more challenging and held secrets of greater consequence."

Soon after enrolling at Cornell University to study microbiology, she realised that there were "other subjects - the humanities, history, social sciences - about which I knew little," and ended up taking a BA in economics. Graduate studies at the University of Chicago added economic history to her range of interests, and her PhD dissertation was on urban slavery in the antebellum American South.

A career that reflects the evolving economic role of women

Today, Goldin is internationally recognised for her cross-disciplinary investigations into what she calls "the long-run issues of economic development," and especially the evolving economic role of women. Indeed, her own career reflects that evolution.

In 1990, having taught economics at Princeton and other prestigious US universities, she became the first woman to be offered tenure in the economics department at Harvard, where she is the Henry Lee Professor of Economics. Until 2017, she was director of the Development of the American Economy (DAE) programme at the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER), a post she held for 28 years. 

A woman in evening dress accepts a gift from a man at a royal court surrounded by people.
Claudia Goldin, pictured here at the 2023 Nobel Prize ceremony, is only the second woman to win the prestigious Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences after Elinor Ostrom in 2009. © Keystone/AP TT/Christine Olsson

And from 1984 to 1988, she edited the Journal of Economic History, an experience she credits with finetuning her writing skills. Her books include the seminal "Understanding the Gender Gap: an Economic History of American Women", and (most recently) "Career & Family: Women's Century-Long Journey toward Equity", which has been translated into 15 languages. 

Goldin is the recipient of numerous prestigious academic prizes. For example, she received the Mincer Award from the Society of Labor Economists for life-time contributions to the field of labour economics in 2009, and the IZA Prize in Labor Economics in 2016. Most recently, she became the first ever sole female recipient of the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences in 2023, for "having advanced our understanding of women's labour market outcomes."

The Nobel accolade expressly acknowledged Goldin's work on women in the US economy, which has been ground-breaking and highly influential.

Goldin recognized the decisive part played by technology in changing social attitudes.

Painstaking, archival investigations, conducted over many years, have yielded reams of data, which she has analysed in forensic detail, combining insights from both history and economics.

Investigating why women's economic participation decreased with the transition from an agrarian to an industrial society in the 19th century, but increased with the growth of the 20th century service sector, Goldin swiftly recognised the critical role of social attitudes, and the decisive part played by technology in changing these. 

A female scientist looking through a microscope
Claudia Goldin described the "quiet revolution" in women's career choices in the 1960s and 1970s, particularly the choice of STEM subjects to prepare for university. © istock/sturti

"Historically, industrial work has been more onerous than office work," she told the Nobel committee in Stockholm last December. And in many countries, such as India, "the man who allows his wife to work in 'dangerous pursuits is chastened as slothful and indolent." The stigma is reduced, however, as women's jobs become less onerous and are done by more educated women.

Goldin also described the "quiet revolution" in women's career choices in the 1960s and 1970s, and especially the take-up of STEM subjects to prepare for college, which helps explain why most undergraduates (not only in the US but by 2022 in every OECD nation) are now women. And she illuminated the revolutionary impact of the contraceptive pill on women's career and marriage decisions. Thanks to the reproductive freedom delivered by the pill, age at first marriage began to soar in the US after 1970. By 1980, the relative earnings of women were climbing too.

Women still earn less than men

Yet as Goldin also observed in her Nobel lecture, "An Evolving Economic Force", despite steady structural change, women remain vastly under-represented in the global labour market and when they do work, they still earn less than men.

Goldin has unearthed a clue to this conundrum in a somewhat surprising finding: despite the rising educational and economic achievements of women over the past 50 years, the earnings of US female college graduates have been especially lagging compared with those of men. The reason, she believes, is connected to the nature of the work women do, and this, in turn, reflects their role in the home, where women still perform more domestic duties than men.

 "Greedy" occupations pay disproportionately more, but have less flexibility 

The gender earnings gap is generally higher in professions that Goldin calls "greedy" occupations, such as finance and law, which require more facetime and client contact, and are highly interdependent and less easy to do alone. These greedy jobs pay disproportionately more per hour when people work longer hours, or have less flexibility and control over their time. The gender earnings gap is lower in technology and science, which tend to have more flexible, but lower-paying jobs (except for airline pilots), and is relatively high in healthcare fields with a lot of self-employment. What's more, the gap widens over the working lifecycle and is widest of all for women with children. 

Gender earnings gap an issue of "couple equity"

A man looks after the laundry and a toddler
"Couple equity", or when couples share more, contributes to economic equality. © istock/FatCamera

In short, Goldin has demonstrated that the gender earnings gap is not simply an issue of workplace discrimination. Nor is it, as she told her Stockholm audience, "just about family choices." Instead, it concerns what she calls "couple equity", or "inequity", especially in highly educated couples with children.

Goldin believes that if flexible jobs could be made more productive, perhaps by more use of the remote, working-from-home models that emerged during the Covid-19 pandemic, it could make a significant difference. Even so, "the last chapter cannot be written until couples share more."

The power of sharing

Goldin's own domestic relationship is testimony to the power of sharing. She is married to fellow Harvard economist Lawrence Katz, with whom she has co-authored many papers on economic equality in America and its relationship to educational advances, as well as on the economic impact of the contraceptive revolution of the 1960s.

A woman and a man with a golden retriever arrive at an event.
Claudia Goldin and her husband, Harvard economist Lawrence Katz, with their "amazing" pet, golden retriever Pika. © Keystone/AFP/Lauren Owens Lambert

The couple have no children, but have kept golden retrievers since 1970. Their current "amazing" pet, Pika, seems almost as accomplished as his owners. The 13-year-old canine has been recognised with an award in "competitive scenting", trained for obedience competitions, and has been a therapy dog at a nursing home near where the couple live in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Now aged 77, Goldin knows that social and economic change "requires a succession of generations", and that full gender pay equity will take time and patience to achieve. But she describes herself as an incurable optimist. And since she is still "happiest being a detective", we should probably expect more insights from her into the persistence of the earnings gap.

Anna-Sophie Hartvigsen, Emma Due Bitz and Camilla Falkenberg from Female Invest.

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