Claudia Goldin: three lessons from the work of the latest Nobel Prize winner in economics

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        "The Harvard professor Claudia Goldin was awarded on October 9th the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences "for having advanced our understanding of women's labour market outcomes". She is only the third woman to be awarded the Prize since it was established in 1969 and the first woman not to share the prize.

        Goldin started her academic career as an economic historian, working for her PhD thesis at the University of Chicago on slavery in the US. Her subsequent work on early industrialisation led her to emphasize the economic importance of female (and child) employment during the 19th century.  This was the first step in a ground-breaking career to measure and understand gender gaps in employments and pay.

        Goldin’s early contributions implied a break with the highly politicised debates on gender at the time, as she used the tools employed by economic historians and labour economist to carefully document trends and causally analyse outcomes for female employment, promotion, and wages. Her view seems to have been that before the debate, we need the facts, and today we have access to those facts largely thanks to Goldin’s work.

        Her questions and approaches have changed over time. Early work examined the dynamics of gender employment, showing how industrialization in the US lead to a decline in female employment, which then started raising again after World War II, and emphasizing the importance of education gaps (Understanding the Gender Gap: An Economic History of American Women, 1990, and "The Role of World War II in the Rise of Women's Employment," 1991).

        In one of her most cited articles, "Orchestrating Impartiality: The Effect of 'Blind' Auditions on Female Musicians" (with Cecilia Rouse, 2000) she takes on the challenge of identifying discrimination. Much of existing work used data from labour force surveys to “measure discrimination”: the wages of men and women were regressed on a set of individual characteristics, such as age, education and industry, and the differences in wages that could not be attributed to differences in characteristics were deemed due to discrimination. Yet, critics argued, such differences could be simply the result of the data not capturing in a precise enough way the characteristics of workers. In their seminal study, Goldin and Rouse look at auditions to join the top classical music orchestras in the US and compare orchestras that placed candidates behind a screen -so that the jury would not know if they were men or women- and those that did not. The fact that the former recruited more women than the latter was seen as a direct measure of the extent of discrimination.

        Goldin has never stopped trying to understand gender gaps. In her 2014 article, “A grand gender convergence: Its last chapter,” she acknowledges the gains made in the second half of the 20th century, notably due to increased educational attainment. Yet, as the gap in earnings has not fully closed, she has focused on which other aspects matter and pointed the finger at aspects so far little discussed. Notably, she claims, after changes in policy and in household norms, the structure of jobs should be brought to the forefront. The disproportionate reward amongst high-skilled workers who are willing to work long and atypical hours is, according to Goldin, one of the key aspects explaining the persistence in differences in female and male earnings.

        She claims in the biographical essay “The Economist as Detective” (in Passion and Craft: Economists at Work, Michael Szenberg, ed.) that she always wanted to be a detective. As an academic economist and as a woman I am grateful to Claudia Goldin that, over her long career, she has kept searching for the culprit behind gender gaps in labour markets."


Cecilia García-Peñalosa, Marseille, October 9, 2023