Goldin’s work has helped make the world a better place

Goldin is clear-eyed about the progress women have made as well as the challenges ahead.  (REUTERS)
Goldin is clear-eyed about the progress women have made as well as the challenges ahead. (REUTERS)


  • The Nobel laureate saw employees as people first and that has made a positive difference

In a research paper that Claudia Goldin co-authored years ago, this year’s Nobel laureate in Economics documented how pay for women in major US symphony orchestras rose after so-called ‘blind’ auditions were introduced in the 1980s, where musicians seeking a job performed behind a screen. In a paper just this month, Goldin’s keen eye for revealing details prompted her to compare how many references there were in newspapers of the 1960s to equal rights legislation with a count of references to “hot coffee" and “ice cream cones."

Goldin’s new paper, titled ‘Why Women Won,’ documents how prohibitions against sex discrimination were sometimes fortuitously inserted into important civil rights legislation in the early 1960s to give African-Americans equal rights. And in a case of art predicting real-life events—and her writing is artistic and moving—she won the Nobel Prize in Economics days after that paper was published, only the third woman to do so.

Removing discrimination against women and minorities boosts economies, lends diversity to workplaces and corrects historical injustices. Often overlooked in our triumphalist narrative on digital inclusion is India’s low workforce participation rate for women and how this rules out an East Asian-style development trajectory.

Goldin’s genius has been to make us think harder about these issues. It is often difficult to isolate where workplace discrimination has been a dominant factor and where bad luck has been. Both dogged the career of Katalin Kariko, who won this year’s Nobel for medicine with Drew Weissman for research on messenger RNA that led to a successful vaccine against covid. For decades, Kariko moved from one academic job to another without getting tenure as a professor. Her husband calculated that her long workdays meant she was earning a dollar an hour. A New York Times profile of her in 2021 moved me to tears because her dedication is so admirable, but also because it went unrewarded for so long.

Goldin is clear-eyed about the progress women have made as well as the challenges ahead. In ‘Why Women Won,’ she writes, “Men and women still differ along a host of outcomes in the labour market, workplace, and home. But they differ far less in terms of the formal legal rights accorded them and in outcomes than before the 1960s." Her research shows that women in the US earn on average four-fifths of what similarly qualified men do in equivalent jobs.

It is Goldin’s journey through history that reminds us how far the developed world has come. It was civil rights legislation of the 1960s that gave women’s rights a collateral boost. “The use of the phrase ‘sex discrimination’ (or ‘gender discrimination’) indicates an awareness that women’s rights in the workplace, credit markets, housing, the court system, and marriage were restricted, in a similar manner to the way those for Blacks were." But even after that milestone, Goldin points out a contradiction at the time by multiple liberal judges who ruled repeatedly that women should not serve on juries because they were the “centre of home and family life." Back then, companies expected pregnant women to resign their jobs.

In Career and Family: Women’s Century Long Journey to Equity, Goldin examines a current contradiction: Even though the proportion of 25-year-old women who are graduates is considerably higher than men in the US (45% versus 36%), a decade or so into their careers, men start to earn significantly more, especially in high-paying professions such as finance and law. She describes these as “greedy" workplaces that demand that employees who want to be promoted put in long hours and work weekends. Working women, faced with this “time bind" because of responsibilities at home, opt for smaller firms or roles so that they can respond should a day-care centre close early, for example. Along with discrimination, the unequal sharing of child-raising duties is still a primary cause for gender pay disparity. Her brilliant insight is twofold: Gender inequality begins at home because it is almost always the working mother who is ‘on call’ and employers need to rethink the burden they put on their employees’ quality of life. Younger employees value a better balance.

Reading Goldin’s work this week, I was uncomfortably reminded that in my pre-teen years, I did not think twice about calling my mother, who headed a mid-sized non-governmental organization, at work to demand she intervene in some childish fight with my eldest brother. My first boss in New York was a working mother who celebrated promotions and farewells with fancy lunches. Fifteen years later, I was picked for a job in London by a charismatic editor who happened to be the mother of three sons—as my mother was. I idolized both because of their feisty humour, but also their broad conception of work-life, which empathetically included the needs of a single man journeying back to India for more than a month every year to see his parents. Decades on, my eyes light up when I receive an email from them.

While seeking to draw more women into economics, Goldin discovered that women entering college were often turned off by the discipline because they saw it as more about numbers than people, while men often viewed it as a route to finance. It is because so many women managers, and indeed Goldin herself, see employees as people first that the work world is a much better place today.

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