The winner of the Nobel in economics has demonstrated how gender gaps in work have shrunk, and why some remain.
Claudia Goldin, who won the Nobel Prize in economics on Monday, has documented the journey of American women from, in her words, holding jobs to pursuing careers — working not just to support themselves, but because work is a fundamental aspect of their identity and satisfaction.
She has described the changing roles of women in the last half-century as “among the grandest advances in society and the economy.” She has shown how they have outpaced men in education, poured into the labor force and found meaning in their work.
Yet, her research demonstrates, women still lag behind men in various ways — in their pay, their work force participation and the share who reach the top of professions.
That’s no fault of their own, her recent work has shown. It’s because of the way work is structured. American jobs disproportionately reward long hours. The most glaring gender gaps would diminish, she has argued, if employees had more control over where and when their work got done.
Women’s work was not given full credit in historical sources, the Nobel committee noted, and she used historical data to describe it. Her research analyzes cohorts of women born around the same time to show shifting patterns, and the societal forces that affected them.
Women “gave birth to modern labor economics,” Professor Goldin, who teaches at Harvard, has written, because economists study variations in behavior. “Women provided an abundance of that,” she wrote. “Men, by and large, were not as interesting since their participation and hours varied far less.”
In public records in the 1800s, married women’s occupation was often listed as “wife.” She uncovered other sources of data to show that, in fact, they often worked in agriculture and other family businesses.
Industrialization, however, made it less likely for married women to work (though unmarried women commonly worked in factories.) She posited that, unlike farming, manufacturing work was harder to do from home, foreshadowing the struggles balancing work and family life that mothers face today.
In the first half of the 20th century, societal changes made it possible for more women to work. These shifts included the rise in high school graduation rates, technological advances that made housework less demanding, and the growth of office jobs.
The quiet revolution
A major change happened in 1970, the beginning of what Professor Goldin calls “the quiet revolution.” There was a sharp inflection point in the likelihood that women worked, in their attachment to their careers and in their ability to jointly make decisions with their spouses.
But there was one generation of women caught in the lurch — those who were young in the 1940s, whose expectations for their futures did not align with their opportunities. They saw their mothers being housewives or limited to jobs as teachers or nurses, and largely did not plan for careers of their own.
“They were in for a great surprise,” Professor Goldin wrote. As job opportunities opened, they often felt trapped, without the education or training to take advantage of them.
Beginning with those born in the late 1940s, girls became better prepared. “These young women began to perceive that their adult lives would differ substantially from those of their mothers’ generation,” she wrote.
Teenage girls began expressing lofty career aspirations. Young women began pursuing professional degrees in large numbers. They delayed marriage and children. When they formed families, they kept working.
In a working paper published the day she won the Nobel this week, titled “Why Women Won,” Professor Goldin noted that the period between 1963 and 1973 was crucial. It included the passage of the Equal Pay Act, the Roe v. Wade decision and the admission of women to many Ivy League schools.
Women began marrying later, keeping their birth names and divorcing more often. The birth control pill, approved in 1960 and widely available for single women around 1970, allowed them to delay childbirth, and to obtain more education, Professor Goldin showed in a paper with Lawrence Katz, another Harvard labor economist (and her husband.)
Increasingly, women’s occupations began to “define one’s fundamental identity and societal worth,” she wrote.
The remaining gender gaps
Today, she has shown, women are more likely than those in previous generations to work throughout their lives. Despite the fears early in the pandemic that school closures would force women to drop out of work and erase decades of gains, women have largely kept working. They are increasingly doing so past retirement age, often not out of financial necessity but because they have invested in their careers and are still enjoying them.
Professor Goldin, the first solo woman to win the Nobel in economics, is an example: She received her doctorate in 1972 and is still working at 77.
Yet just as women who were children in the 1940s underestimated their career potential, the current cohort of working-age women may have overestimated it.
Men’s and women’s careers and pay are basically the same when they start working, but they change when children arrive. Her research shows a small dip in the share of women working in their late 30s and early 40s. Mothers are less likely than before to quit after their first baby, but slightly more likely to temporarily do so later, after “they try as hard as they can” not to, she has said.
She has explained a driving force behind the gender inequity that remains in the American work force: Employers have begun paying disproportionately more for long, inflexible hours. Anyone who scales back for a time, or who is unavailable on weekends or evenings, is at a disadvantage.
As a result, it makes economic sense in highly educated couples for one parent, usually the father, to be on call at work, while the mother is on call at home. Women don’t step back from work because they have rich husbands, she has said. They have rich husbands because they step back from work.
She has disproved the conventional wisdom that women are paid less because they choose lower-paying careers, by showing that the pay gap is larger within occupations, and largest in the highest-earning ones, like medicine and law. If equally productive workers were paid the same on an hourly basis, the differences in pay would disappear.
Closing these remaining gender gaps would require flexibility in where and when work gets done, her research explains. She has said in the past that such a change would require a fundamental remaking of the American workplace, “taking the whole thing down.” But more recently, she has expressed hope that the pandemic may have made that reality more feasible for white-collar workers.
“I suppose I am ever optimistic that this will lead to some reasonably good things,” she said.