Nobel Prize Winner Claudia Goldin On the Role of Women in the U.S. Economy

Receiving the award for contributions in the economic sciences was "a true out of body experience," Goldin told Observer.

Claudia Goldin, an economic historian and professor at Harvard University, was fast asleep when the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences called her earlier this week. It was 4:30 a.m., U.S. time, and she was about to be publicly announced as the winner of the 2023 Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences. “They call you that early because you have to prepare for a press conference at 6:00 a.m.,” Goldin told Observer.

Woman with short white hair speaks at podium
Claudia Goldin speaking at an October 9 press conference at Harvard University. Carlin Stiehl/Getty Images

Goldin, 77, was delighted to get the news, calling it “a true out-of-body experience.” But as the press conference began, her phone connection with the academy dropped. “They never called back,” she said. Fortunately, Randi Hjalmarsson, a member of the prize committee who stepped in to present the economist’s research and field questions, “knew my work better than anyone,” according to Goldin. “I’m going to give her a Nobel Prize,” she joked.

The new Nobel laureate was honored for her work on the women’s labor market and gender gaps in the workforce. Through her research, Goldin has helped account for historical changes in female labor participation, shedding light on topics like gaps in pay and education. “These are subjects that are so important, how could they have been slighted?” said Goldin of studying the role of women in the economy.

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She is now the third woman to ever win the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences and the first to win it alone. Since the announcement of her award, Goldin has received hundreds of emails from those researching gender-related topics who now “feel emboldened.” The individuals working in these areas are disproportionately women, according to the professor. “It’s important, in an area—in academia and in science and in research—that has not had as many women as it should, to make a group of individuals feel that they truly belong.”

This isn’t the first time Goldin has set a precedent for females in academia—in 1989, she became the first woman to be tenured in Harvard’s economics department. Raised in the Bronx, she studied at Cornell University before earning her PhD at the University of Chicago in 1972.

Her work on the role of women in the U.S. economy has been wide-ranging and extensive, exploring the impact of the contraceptive pill on career growth and the effect of children on earning differences. In a well-known 2000 paper, Goldin and Cecilia Rouse studied gender discrimination by examining blind auditions for symphony orchestras. And in her most recent book, the 2021 Career & Family, Goldin took a close look at the evolution of how women balance professional and personal lives.

The effect of “greedy” jobs on the pay gap

Much of Goldin’s research has examined the gender pay gap, which the professor proposes could be narrowed if “greedy” jobs, a term she uses to refer to time-intensive-yet-high-paying careers, become less common. Due to the nature of childcare, couples tend to divide their career building, with women taking more flexible jobs and men pursuing greedier ones, according to Goldin. “Much of what goes on is what happens within the home and how it interacts with the economic marketplace,” she said.

Despite her influence in female labor academia, Goldin wasn’t expecting to become a Nobel laureate. Her work was too complex, too historical and too big-picture, she said. But now she follows in the footsteps of her advisor Robert Fogel, who won the award in 1993 and who himself was advised by the Nobel Prize-winning Simon Kuznets.

The announcement of Goldin’s award serendipitously coincided with the publishing of Why Women Won, a paper by the economist released on October 9 by the National Bureau of Economic Research. Documenting milestones in women’s rights in the U.S. from 1905 to 2023, Goldin examines the increasing recognition of female mistreatment across the workplace, marriage, courts and tax policy, among other areas. There’s much more to explore on the topic, according to Goldin, who is considering turning the paper into a book for her next project. “It’s a set of stories that are often told by legal historians and by other historians, but not by economists.”

Nobel Prize Winner Claudia Goldin On the Role of Women in the U.S. Economy