An American woman last week won the Nobel Prize in economics for her work studying the economic lives of American women.

American economist Claudia Goldin, who was awarded the Nobel prize in economics, won for her research, which has helped understand the role of women in the labor market. The 77-year-old Harvard professor, who is the third woman to be awarded the prestigious economics prize, was given the nod “for having advanced our understanding of women’s labor market outcomes,” the jury said. Lauren Owens Lambert/AFP/Getty Images/TNS

How poetic is that?

No less poetic: Harvard professor Claudia Goldin, 77, is the only woman ever to have received the award by herself, with no (male) collaborators. In her work, Goldin has tried to explain why the wage gap between men and women has persisted, and why women so often are discouraged when it comes to pursuing more advanced job opportunities.

“Women are now more educated than men,” Goldin told The Associated Press on Monday, after she’d won the prize. “They graduate from college at much higher rates than men. They do better in high school than men do. So why are there these differences?”

To answer that, she has delved into 200 years of data about women in the workforce.

It’s been generally assumed that women earn less than men because of differences in education and the jobs they pursue. That may have been true at one time. “However,” said the Nobel committee on Monday, “Goldin has shown that the bulk of this earnings difference is now between men and women in the same occupation, and that it largely arises with the birth of the first child.”


Women, she has pointed out, pay a “motherhood penalty” while men enjoy a “fatherhood premium.”

As Goldin told the New York Times on Monday, “We’re never going to have gender equality until we also have couple equity.”

In a new working paper for the National Bureau of Economic Research, Goldin writes that the golden era of American women’s rights lasted from 1963 to 1973. Of the 155 important moments she highlights, 45% of them took place in those years.

So much progress, Goldin adds, “also produced a powerful anti-women’s rights movement … a potent force in America to this day.”

In that decade of profound change, there is one particular thing that happened – or more precisely didn’t happen – that might have profoundly changed the course of women’s workplace progress: the failure of the 1971 Comprehensive Child Development Act. The bill would have created a multibillion-dollar national day-care system and it would have had the added bonus of helping single mothers stay off the welfare rolls.

Can you imagine how different so many of our lives would be if, as a nation, we had committed to such an initiative?


But then-President Richard Nixon, who first supported the bill, ended up vetoing it. Why? Blame it on the remnants of anti-communist hysteria. Nixon was persuaded that implementing national day care would be tantamount to surrendering children to the state.

Having mined so much data, Goldin has fascinating insights about how women’s work and home priorities have shifted. In her 2020 lecture, “Journey Across a Century of Women,” she divides the priorities of college-educated women who were born over the course of a century – between 1878 and 1978 – into five distinct groups:

Those born between 1878 and 1897 chose families or careers. Those born between 1898 and 1923 had jobs then families. Those born between 1924 and 1943 had families then jobs. Those born between 1944 and 1957 had careers then families. And those born between 1958 and 1978 expect to have careers and families at the same time.

This more or less comports with the experience of my grandmother, my mother and me.

To illustrate the 100-year transition from career or family to career and family, Goldin invokes two American politicians: suffragette Jeannette Rankin, born in 1880, the first American woman elected to Congress, who never married and never had children, and Tammy Duckworth, born in 1968, the first U.S. senator to give birth while in office and the first to bring a baby onto the floor of the Senate during a session. (“Although,” Goldin jokes, “many would say there have been babies in Congress before that.”)

In some ways, Goldin’s research puts to rest that silly old question about whether women can have it all. They always have, one way or another. She shows us, however, that women receive lower wages than men for choosing children and a career.

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login first for digital access. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

filed under: