Historically and into the present day, female workers overall make less than men. Looking at college-educated women in the United States, Harvard University economic historian Claudia Goldin studies the origins, causes and persistence of that gap, which she discusses in this Social Science Bites podcast.
Goldin, whose most recent book is Career & Family: Women’s Century-Long Journey toward Equity, details for host David Edmonds how the figures she uses are determined. Specifically, it’s the ratio of female-to-male weekly earnings for those working full-time and year-round, with the median woman compared to the median man. “Expressed in this way, there has been real progress” in the last century, she says. Today in the United States, where Goldin’s studies occur, that number is below 85 cents on the dollar.
While that trend is good news, it’s not the whole story. “By expressing this gap in this single number we miss the really, really important dynamics, and that is that the gender earnings pay gap widens a lot with age and it widens a lot with [having] children, and it widens in the corporate, banking and finance, and law sectors.”
And while the gap may have narrowed, it shows no evidence it’s about to close.
Acknowledging the “persistent frustration” about the pay gap’s durability, Goldin pointed a finger at structural inequities, bias and sexual harassment, but she also argues that “greedy work” was a major factor. Greedy work “is a job that pays a disproportionately more on a per hour basis when someone works a greater number of hours or has less control over those hours.” Hence, the gap persists “not so much [because] men and women go into completely different occupations,” she explains, but that women are financially “penalized” for choosing work that allows flexibility within that occupation.
“The important point,” she adds, “is that both lose. Men are able to have the family and step up because women step back in terms of their jobs, but both are deprived. Men forgo time with their family and women often forgo their career.”
But losers can win – eventually. The more that workers say to their supervisors that “we want our own time” the more the labor market will change, she explains by pointing to current trends. One caveat, though, is that the situation is worse among women without college educations.
Goldin is the Henry Lee Professor of Economics at Harvard University and was the director of the National Bureau of Economic Research’s Development of the American Economy program from 1989 to 2017. She is a co-director of the NBER’s Gender in the Economy group. She was president of the American Economic Association in 2013 and was president of the Economic History Association in 1999/2000. She is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and the American Philosophical Society and a fellow of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the Society of Labor Economists (which awarded her its Mincer Prize for life-time contributions in 2009), the Econometric Society, and the Cliometric Society. She received the IZA Prize in Labor Economics in 2016, the 2019 BBVA Frontiers in Knowledge award, and the 2020 Nemmers award, the latter two both in economics.
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