NEW DELHI: Women are essential workers, but cannot be that at home and at work simultaneously. This is how Claudia Goldin, this year’s Economics Nobel Prize winner, summarises the dilemma of women in the labour market.
Goldin, who has been working for decades, dipping into 200 years of US labour market data, says in one of her write-ups titled, ‘Journey across a century of Women’— “Aspirations and achievements of college women greatly changed across the past century, with increased income, the mechanisation of the household, and technological improvements in fertility control and assisted reproductive methods. But the structure of work and the persistence of social norms, no matter how much weaker they have become, have limited the success of college-graduate women in achieving career and family.”
The Nobel Committee, which chose Golding for this year’s Economics Nobel, did so for her work in ‘uncovering key drivers of gender differences in the labour market’.
Chairman of the committee Jakob Svensson says: “Understanding women’s role in the labour is important for society. Thanks to Claudia Goldin’s groundbreaking research we now know much more about the underlying factors and which barriers may need to be addressed in the future.”
Claudia Goldin, an economic historian and a labor economist, is the Henry Lee Professor of Economics at Harvard University. She was the director of the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER)’s Development of the American Economy programme from 1989 to 2017. She has researched a wide spectrum of topics, largely focusing on the female labour force, the gender gap in earnings and income inequality.
Goldin has written a number of books, including the most recent one—Career & Family: Women’s Century-Long Journey toward Equity.
So, why is Goldin’s work considered so important and what is her work all about? Goldin dedicated a large part of her career to studying the evolution of women in the labour market, and the persistent pay gap between men and women at work.
Though her work is largely limited to studying the US labour market, it gives a peek into how women’s role and position has changed over the years in society and in workplaces globally.
Evolution of women in labour market
Her path-breaking work has been identifying five distinct groups of ‘career’ women evolving over 100 years from 1900 to 2000.
Career or family: This group of women graduated between 1900 and 1919. They had the hard choice to make between having a career or a family. They did not have the luxury of both in most cases. Golding found that 53% of graduates did not marry till 30 years of age, and around a third were not married by the age of 50 years. And if they did marry their participation in the labour market was low. For example, only 20% of the married graduate women in the 25-29 age group were part of the labour force. Their participation increased to 30% by the time they reached 50 years.
Job then family: According to Goldin, women who graduated between 1920 and 1945 were keener on their careers, ‘but the Great Depression intervened, and this transitional generation got a job than family instead’. More women in this group were married in their 20s (62%), and more were in the labour force despite being married.
The family then job: Golding says as the US was getting ‘swept away in a tide of early marriages and a subsequent baby boom’, this group of women graduates shifted to planning for a family first and then a job. “Just 9% of the group never married, and 18% never bore a child,” she says. Their labour force participation rate also increased from 53% in the earlier group to 73% by the time they reached 50. But Goldin noticed that ‘by the time these women entered the workplace, it was too late for them to develop their jobs into full-fledged careers’.
Career then family: Women who graduated between 1966 and 1979 have an unlikely friend in birth control pills, which helped them delay children ‘to obtain more education and a promising professional trajectory’. As a result, the group saw a high employment rate at a young age (73% of married women in the 25-29 age group). However, the delay in having children led 27% to never have them.
Career and Family: Women in the late 20th century and early 21st century have better control of their careers and families thanks to birth control pills and technology-assisted childbirth (IVF, etc). Goldin says although women graduates in this group are delaying marriage and childbirth, more women are having children.
Gender earning gap
Even as Goldin charts the evolution of women in the labour market, she sees a disturbing trend of stubborn gender earnings gap (defined as the ratio of female earnings to male), especially among college graduate workers.
According to her, women with children earn less than women without children. But the gender gap in earnings is not because women work less hours as Goldin found that the gap exists for both annual earnings and those on an hourly basis.
“Earnings gaps increase with age up to a point, and they increase with joyous events like births and, often, marriage,” she says.
And while Goldin blames this difference in earnings on the usual suspects—classic discrimination, bad actors, sexual harassment, and biased workers and supervisors—she thinks the bigger culprit is something else. And to explain this, she borrows the term — Greedy Work—coined by American feminist writer and activist Betty Friedan.
“The gender earnings gap is greater in occupations that have more demands on employee time and where facetime and client relationships matter most,” she says.
She elaborates that many jobs, especially the higher-earning ones, pay far more on an hourly basis when the work is long, on-call, rush, evening, weekend, and unpredictable. “And these time commitments interfere with family responsibilities.”
At this point, she also introduces the concept of ‘Couple Inequity’. Goldin explains the Couple Inequality concept by comparing a flexible work routine with what she calls Greedy Work.
According to her, a flexible job has a constant wage with respect to hours. Greedy work is not so flexible and has a wage rate that rises with hours. A couple with children can’t both be in a greedy or non-flexible job. “So, one works the flexible, less remunerative job and the other works the less flexible, more remunerative job. More often than not, the man takes the less flexible, higher-paying job,” she notes.
But the gender inequality that leads to couple inequality may not necessarily be true in the case of same-sex marriages, feels Goldin, who believes that even in same-sex marriages couple inequality persists even if there’s no gender difference.
Her solution to both gender and couple inequality is more productive flexible work and a more flexible greedy work. And to achieve this, she again leans back to technology, which can create good ‘substitutes’.
“The simplest is to create good substitutes. Teams of substitutes, not teams of complements, could be created, as they have been in pediatrics, anesthesiology, veterinary medicine, personal banking, trust and estate law, software engineering, and primary care,” says Goldin. What she means is one should create cheaper amenities, which can work as a substitute for women when they are away from work, taking care of children, parents, etc. In a podcast hosted by IMF, Claudia Goldin says it is heartening that more and more men are taking the caregiver role seriously in the family, yet caregiving remains largely a women’s role.
Claudia Goldin earned her PhD in economics from the University of Chicago. She is the first woman to be offered tenure by Harvard University. She describes herself as a detective who delves into old records to discover the truth