The gender wage gap and its role in how women and men choose their occupations, family structure and lifestyle generates much controversy, from the classroom to the halls of political power. Some argue that the wage gap is prevalent in every part of society — from who bears the cost of child rearing to lower wages for women for the same work. Others claim that since the gap is simply a product of men and women having different preferences, there is no role for public policy.

The power of economics research is that it strips away emotion and examines the world objectively, beyond our initial perceptions. There is no better example of this ideal than Claudia Goldin, winner of the 2023 Nobel Memorial Prize for economic sciences. Goldin treats these questions about how women make decisions in labor markets like a detective in a Sherlock Holmes novel (always accompanied by her golden retriever Pika), particularly by investigating historic economic data from the past two centuries.

Unlike some years when the committee at the Swedish Riksdag (or central bank) awards the prize for a seminal paper, Goldin’s list of studies is so long and broad that it is impossible to summarize just one idea. A good place to start is why women saw a large spike in labor market participation and marriage age after the 1960s. Goldin showed a correlation between when states allowed oral contraception for single and younger women, and a dramatic increase in the college-attendance rates of women.  

Oral contraception changed incentives for women by reducing the likelihood of unplanned pregnancy and raised the opportunity cost of marriage. Educated women could either focus on better match quality or not marry at all. This change had broad economic and societal changes.

Access to contraception did not, however, close the gender wage gap. Much of Goldin’s subsequent work, including her influential paper “A Grand Gender Convergence: Its Last Chapter,” has focused on the remaining challenges for workplace gender equality, including the ways in which work is currently structured and rewarded. Big questions still remain, especially with trends toward remote work and increased female enrollments at universities worldwide.

Nobel Prize in economics awarded to Harvard professor for researching the gender wage gap
Perspective: What do working mothers want, and why can’t employers give it to them?

In her recent book “Career and Family: Women’s Century-Long Journey to Equity,” Goldin tackles the question of why women and men choose different occupations and why women seem to select jobs that tend to pay less. She describes a phenomenon called “greedy jobs” — the types of work that value (and highly reward) long hours and inflexibility. The dilemma for workers (particularly at the top end of the skills distribution) is if an employee doubles the number of hours at the office, the financial and professional rewards more than double. Examples of such jobs include law, finance, consulting and even the military.

The true difficulty for dual-earner couples is that when they have children, both spouses find it extremely difficult to balance family and career. One spouse will then specialize in their “greedy” job while the other may take on a more flexible career or drop out of the workforce entirely. Goldin shows that in most occupations, the spouses who takes on the lower-paying gigs are nearly always women.

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Goldin’s work has inspired generations of economists studying gender inequalities in the labor market and beyond. She has also been tremendously influential in advancing the status of women in the economics profession. Her “Undergraduate Women in Economics” initiative, aimed at attracting more women to economics, has led to dozens of successful programs across universities. She also pioneered the “Gender in the Economy” study group as part of one of economists’ most prestigious institutions, the National Bureau of Economic Research. As the first woman tenured in the Harvard economics department and only the third woman to win the Nobel Prize in economics, Goldin is not only a trailblazer in the field but also a source of inspiration for numerous aspiring female economists. 

No issues are more central to the human experience than marriage, family and careers. Ensuring that diverse voices are heard in our families, schools, church councils and boardrooms allows for a better society. Pro-family policies — such as paid family leave, increased access to health care and internship programs for working mothers or those returning to the labor market — will empower couples to better balance these tradeoffs between career and family, and result in a more dynamic and equitable economy, healthier marriages and increased opportunity for all.

Claudia Goldin’s work allows us to see the world as it is to understand how we can make it better for everyone.

Michael Kofoed and Olga Stoddard are assistant professors of economics at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville and Brigham Young University, respectively. They are both research fellows at the Institute for Labor Economics.

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