Harvard Professor Claudia Goldin wins Nobel Prize for groundbreaking gender pay gap research

 October 10, 2023

Over the past century, the proportion of women in paid work has tripled in many high-income countries. This is one of the biggest societal and economic changes in the labor market in modern times, but significant gender differences remain.

In the 1980's, researcher Claudia Goldin developed the first comprehensive approach to explaining the source of these differences.

Now a Professor of Economics at Harvard University, Claudia has become the third woman to win a Nobel Prize thanks to her groundbreaking research examining the history of the pay gap. For her impressive efforts and important impact, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences awarded her the prestigious Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences

Revealing insights into women's roles in the labor market

Professor Goldin's research brings a better understanding of the labor markets of yesterday, today and tomorrow.

“When I first started working on this subject, I realized that most economic historians were studying child labor, or they were studying the labor of men. But they didn’t really know what women were doing. And so that’s what I worked out," said Professor Goldin.

By trawling through the archives of over 200 years of historical data, Professor Goldin revealed new surprising insights into women’s historical and contemporary roles in the US labor market. The fact that women’s choices have often been, and remain, limited by marriage and responsibility for the home and family is at the heart of her research. 

Tracking the work life and incomes of women helped Claudia show that the Industrial Revolution caused a huge fall in women's independent earnings compared with men, before a recovery at the turn of the last century that was accelerated by changing attitudes after World War Two. The contraceptive pill enabled women to make further progress, as had a post-pandemic focus on remote work, which has created greater workplace flexibility for mothers and other family caregivers.

"Goldin is unique for bringing two fields of Economics. She's a Labor Economist, but she's also an Economic Historian. She has brought all the tools, models, and methods of labor economics to the study of economic history. In this case, the role of females in history," explained Randi Hjalmarsson, member of the Committee for the Prize in Economic Sciences. "Goldin studied something that many people simply decided not to study before because they didn't think the data existed. How can we study women in the labor market in the 1800s? Goldin was a detective. She really got her hands dirty digging through the archives to come up with new data sources and ways to use them. It's so impressive because today we have computers and such powerful tools that allow us to redigitized censuses. But when she was doing this work 30 years ago. Goldin was way before her time coming up with these historical statistics."

“Goldin’s discoveries have vast societal implications. By finally understanding the problem and calling it by the right name, we will be able to pave a better route forward," added Randi.

Discovering her true calling in the study of women and gender

Professor Goldin was the first woman to be tenured at the Harvard Department of Economics, and has since written several books and academic papers documenting the roots of inequality. 

“I worked on many different subjects in the field of economic history before I discovered my true calling...which was the study of women and gender,” said Professor Goldin.

Following the news of her award, Professor Goldin's colleagues paid homage to her work and achievements. 

“Claudia Goldin is a pioneering economist. Her groundbreaking contributions to our understanding of the gender wage gap and patterns of women’s participation in the labor market have helped deepen awareness of these issues and made progress possible," said Harvard President Claudine Gay.

“Through Professor Goldin’s groundbreaking, far-reaching research, we come to understand how the demands of balancing career and family are experienced personally, in individual lives, but in a broader context. With the long view of an historian and the exacting precision of an economist, she reveals both the enormous gains made by women in the workplace over time and the many ways in which true equity remains out of reach,” echoed Hopi Hoekstra, Edgerley Family Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences.

“We are enormously proud of what she has brought to this University and to the wider world of knowledge, particularly with regard to gender inequality in work and family life,” added Lawrence D. Bobo, Dean of Social Science and the W.E.B. Du Bois Professor of the Social Sciences.

Inspired by her students to push the frontiers of knowledge

As well as pioneering researcher, Professor Goldin is also an admired mentor, colleague, and community-builder.

Alex Chan, an assistant professor at Harvard Business School, would later point out that Goldin went to her office after the party to meet with graduate students seeking job market advice.

“Most people would probably be doing only media work and trying to soak in the attention. But my colleague is such an insanely committed teacher that on the day she won the Nobel Prize, she was just working one-on-one with her students all day!” explained Alex.

Professor Goldin described her students as "muses" to her work who push her to the frontiers of knowledge every day. “I could never do research, I could never be where I am today, without them," said Professor Goldin.



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