Economist Claudia Goldin, AM'69, PhD'72, studies gender in the labor force.

Claudia Goldin, AM’69, PhD’72, interprets the present through the lens of the past. The labor economist, economic historian, and Henry Lee Professor of Economics at Harvard University is one of the country’s preeminent scholars on gender and pay, focusing over the past several years on female college graduates’ achievements. Her most recent research is on women who delay retirement, more common among those with higher levels of education and who find satisfaction—and an identity—in their jobs.

How did you first become interested in the role of gender in economics?  

I entered graduate school [at UChicago] to study industrial organization and product markets. While there, Gary Becker, AM’53, PhD’55, returned as a faculty member and opened my eyes to a very different field: human capital and labor. Many of the areas Gary was interested in involved gender, although it wasn’t necessarily his direct focus—marriage, family, children, and labor supply. Then, working with Robert Fogel, I wrote my dissertation in economic history on slavery in the urban South. I continued for many years to work on southern economic history. 

It wasn’t until many years later that I started thinking about the history of the family, about women being the most interesting part of the labor force, in part because there’s more variance in women’s labor supply over the long run. 

What factor do you think most influences wage inequality? 

One extremely important factor is an increased return to investment in college education. From natural experiments involving quite similar individuals—one who just got into a particular college and one who just didn’t—we see that college makes a big difference in people’s lives. The other component of rising inequality is that so much economic growth goes to the top 0.1 percent of income earners. 

What would you say to people who claim that the pay gap isn’t real, that it’s a reflection of women choosing to enter lower paying fields?  

In some sense you can interpret my work as saying the same thing. But the conclusion is different. Consider a couple I know who both have exactly the same training. They went to college together, did their advanced work together; both work in the IT field. 

They do exactly the same job, and their aggregate hours are probably about the same, but because they have kids, they decided only one could be on call. They left 20 percent of someone’s salary on the table for the luxury or necessity of more flexible hours. For various reasons in their and many other households, the woman chose to take the flexible hours route. 

Someone might say, “See, the gender gap is because of individual choice. Not discrimination or social pressure.” And yet you can interpret it a different way—that if there was a lower cost to having temporal or time flexibility, the gender pay gap on an hourly basis would be zero.

—EDITED AND ADAPTED BY MAUREEN SEARCY