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Economy Updated: 09 Mar 2022

The pioneer of economic analysis of the gender gap wins the Frontiers of Knowledge Award

The BBVA Foundation recognized Claudia Goldin with the Frontiers of Knowledge Award in the Economics, Finance and Management category for her contributions to the historical analysis of women’s role in the economy. The Harvard Professor’s research helped to shed light on the factors behind the gender gap. The award committee underscored her role as the founder of the field of empirical analysis of the gender gap, and a pioneer in her methods.

In 1990, Claudia Goldin (born in New York in 1946) published “Understanding the Gender Gap”, a book that covers her research into the gender gap at the workplace, using innovative quantitative methods to obtain historical data dating back to 1820 on employment, income, professional experience, discrimination and hours worked. A highly influential analysis that studies the root causes of salary differences between men and women, calling into question the more conventional explanations of this phenomenon. Thirty years after its publication it remains an essential source in this area of research, greatly shaping current work on women and the labor market.

In her study, the U.S. economist combines historical time series on the gender gap at the workplace with economic theories on wage determination, employment and discrimination to trace the economic history of U.S. women. “Although it looks at one country, the United States, its results are applicable elsewhere,” remarked the new laureate after hearing of the award.

Goldin finds the origins of wage discrimination in the growing use of incentive mechanisms that accompanied the expansion of administrative work at the beginning of the 20th Century. This stood in contrast to the predominantly piecework rates paid to women in the manufacturing industries at that time. She argues that the establishment of personnel departments and policies created the institutional conditions that perpetuated this discrimination.

The pioneer of economic analysis of the gender gap wins the Frontiers of Knowledge Award - Fundación BBVA

Her research also examines how women’s aspirations have changed throughout the 20th Century. In the early 20th Century, women had to choose between the home and subsistence labor. Starting in the 1920s, women started to put work before their families. In the 1940s this was reversed, and in the 1960s the concept of a career was introduced, which came before family. And in the current period, starting in the 1980s, women want both a career and a family.

Goldin’s work covers a wide range of subjects, including immigration, income inequality - not only between men and women, technological change and education. Most of her research uses the lens of the past to interpret the present, exploring the roots of many of today’s concerns. She is currently completing an ambitious project on college graduates’ professional and family transitions for men and women starting from the end of the 19th Century to the present.

The current gender gap

Goldin’s study finds that these differences have lessened over time. “The key factors behind this have to do with what is going on around the individuals themselves. Things like economic and technological change and the rise in real incomes. These have come together with an increase in education and more than any other factor, that is what has empowered women to seek their own identities and careers,” she maintains.

We carry with us cultural and societal differences that we inherit from the past,” explains Goldin, pointing specifically to a model of work that makes employees who work the most hours the most valuable to their companies. “If a couple has kids that need care, one person in the couple tends to be more responsible for taking care of things at home, while the other concentrates more on work. So by and large, women are disproportionately on call at home and men are disproportionately on call at the office.”

Motherhood and childcare are therefore another root cause. “In many studies, we don’t see large income differences between men and women when women don’t have children or are not taking on the responsibilities of the home,” she says, adding: “The change has to come from men and not women.” As she sees it, if fathers make it clear to their employers that they want to be paid more for their availability, they will be transmitting to their companies they they highly value their families. “And if firms realize they need to do more to remunerate this availability, they will logically respond,” says Goldin.

Looking to the future, Professor Goldin insists that although significant progress has been made in women’s workforce participation over history, “many of the issues we still face have to do with what goes on within our own homes, so they are harder to get a grip on. The most important thing is to get men to be on call at home. They should be the first to tell their bosses I’m not going to work overtime this Sunday and miss my daughter’s soccer game.”