Wednesday, May 29, 2024

Opinion | In Claudia Goldin’s Nobel prize, a win for all women in the workplace

Opinion | In Claudia Goldin’s Nobel prize, a win for all women in the workplace

Very early on Monday, Harvard economist Claudia Goldin released a working paper called “Why Women Won.” It chronicles 155 critical moments in the modern history of women’s rights.

A few hours later, a 156th occurred: Goldin herself was awarded the economics Nobel.

Goldin is only the third woman to win the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences and the first to do so solo — that is, not sharing with a male colleague. But her achievement is a milestone primarily because of why she won: for providing “the first comprehensive account of women’s earnings and labour market participation through the centuries.” The award represents formal (and overdue) recognition that gender equity is key to understanding how economies can flourish.

Goldin has always had a historian’s instinct for narrative and an economist’s devotion to mathematical rigor. The occupation she analogizes her work to is “detective.” Rather than using fingerprints and forensics, though, Goldin uses archival documents and troves of data to explain how today’s economic outcomes are rooted in events and choices from decades earlier.

Goldin has excavated or compiled data on topics as varied as academic grades in elite college courses to 1930s records showing which firms fired women when they got married. She has used these data points to reconstruct how norms, institutions, expectations, policies and technological innovations (such as the pill) influence gender equity, which in turn influences employment and earnings outcomes for both sexes.

Among other things, her research has upended politically convenient but overly simplistic understandings of the gender pay gap.

Conservatives sometimes argue that men, on average, earn much more than women because men and women choose very different kinds of occupations (finance vs. nursing, for example). Liberals instead often blame discrimination. There’s an element of truth in both storylines, particularly if you’re focusing on statistics from several decades ago. But neither explains a pattern evident in data today: Within any given occupation, the gender pay gap is relatively small when people enter the labor force. It widens only later, usually after a woman has a child.

This is true despite women’s tremendous gains in education, legislative victories and increasingly diverse career choices, and despite more progressive thinking taking hold about gender roles.

Goldin argues that the persistence of the gender wage gap is in part because of the rise of “greedy work,” or the idea that employees who are willing to work longer hours get rewarded so much more — disproportionally more than the extra time put in. She has found that doubling the hours worked typically results in much more than double the earnings; inversely, halving the hours typically results in much less than half the earnings.

Employers generally place a premium on being on call, all the time, especially in high-wage professions.

This means that even if two opposite-sex spouses start out with equal pay and egalitarian views toward child-rearing, they still might sort into more traditional gender roles to maximize their household income — with Mom specializing in being “on call” at home and Dad specializing in being “on call” at work. If both instead went “halfsies” and scaled back on work equally, they’d be giving up a lot more money than if they specialized.

“The 50-50 couple might be happier, but would be poorer,” as Goldin has put it.

Clearly, social norms and preferences play a role in these outcomes. (Why is it more often Mom, and not Dad, specializing in household duties?) But Goldin’s research shows that workplace structures matter, too.

Some of her other groundbreaking research has tracked industries that have made jobs more divisible so that workers (male or female) don’t have to be on call 24/7 to earn high pay — or, put another way, industries that have lowered the cost of workplace flexibility, which disproportionately matters to women.

Pharmacy is her favorite case study: Pharmacists still require postsecondary training and specialized knowledge. Pharmacy is still a high-income career. But better IT and the rise of retail chains allow information to be easily transmitted from one pharmacist to another. This evolution enabled shift work, reduced the penalty for part-time work and ultimately narrowed the gender wage gap in the profession.

Years ago, when Goldin first told me about this pharmacy research, I asked whether her findings were really so translatable to other fields. Weren’t some jobs inherently less divisible, less shareable, than others? Weren’t some occupations always going to be “greedy”?

So, weren’t there limitations on what this could mean for women’s roles in the workplace and gender equity more broadly?

But Goldin is a preternatural optimist. She pointed to another occupation that has made complex, high-stakes work more substitutable across workers, and thus less “greedy” of any single worker’s time: obstetrics. “If we can figure this out for the most important thing,” she said — bringing new life into the world — “why can’t we do it for all the others?”

That attitude is what enlivens her scholarship: She draws on what has been, and what has become, to help imagine what could yet be.

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