Closing The Gap

Nobel Prize-winning Harvard economist Claudia Goldin: The gender pay gap will 'never' close unless this happens

Harvard professor Claudia Goldin speaks during a press conference held in Cambridge, Massachusetts on October 9, 2023 to discuss her Nobel Prize in Economics.
Jessica Rinaldi | Boston Globe | Getty Images

Claudia Goldin, a Harvard University professor, has spent nearly her entire career investigating what drives the persistent gender gap in the labor market, and how to narrow it.

On Monday, Goldin was awarded the Nobel Memorial Prize in economics for her trailblazing research on women in the labor market, making her only the third woman to win the prize and the first to do so solo.

Through her ongoing research, Goldin, 77, has provided the first comprehensive account of American women's earnings and job market outcomes through the centuries, the Nobel committee said in the prize announcement.

Goldin has a doctorate in economics from the University of Chicago and became the first woman to be offered tenure in Harvard's economics department in 1990. 

Her research illustrates how the process of closing the wage gap has been uneven throughout the course of history, changing in line with social norms and women's own expectations about their career prospects and roles at home.

Goldin likens her work to that of a detective: As women's jobs frequently didn't appear in historical records, she's had to turn to other unique sources, from 1930s sex-segregated job listings to 18th-century business directories, to explain how events, institutions and technological innovations — like the birth control pill — influence women's economic power.

One of the most significant findings Goldin uncovered in her research is that differences in pay and labor force participation cannot be attributed to biological differences, but to the division of unpaid caregiving and household labor between heterosexual couples.

"We are never going to have gender equality, or narrow the pay gap, until we have couple's equity," Goldin tells CNBC Make It

In the past, the difference in earnings between men and women could be blamed on educational attainment and occupation choices. 

However, the Nobel committee said Goldin has shown that the bulk of the current earnings gap is now between men and women in the same jobs — and that it mostly emerges after the birth of a woman's first child.

If women can achieve equity within their families, they have a better chance of achieving equality at work, too. That's because when women are tasked with more of the child care, household chores and elder care, "they have less time to dedicate to their careers and, in doing so, they earn less," Goldin explains.

True equity for dual-career couples remains "frustratingly out of reach," Goldin adds, because of "greedy jobs" and parenting norms. 

"Greedy jobs" are high-paying, high-pressure jobs that require people to prioritize work over all other aspects of their lives. As Goldin points out, the fact that "greedy jobs" come with a competitive salary leaves people with a difficult choice: Ultimately, one parent needs to be available at home, and this is still most often the woman.

A 50-50 couple, Goldin adds, "might be happier, but they would be leaving money on the table — and often, it's a lot."

Increasing government funding of child care and the number of high-paying jobs in which people can share duties, rather than burn out, can help narrow the gender pay gap, says Goldin. 

But big, uncomfortable questions remain. "For example: Why do women, not men, step back from these higher-paid opportunities?" says Goldin. "And how can we make these 'greedy jobs' less demanding, without making them less productive? That's the next frontier we'll need to explore." 

Want to earn more and land your dream job? Join the free CNBC Make It: Your Money virtual event on Oct. 17 at 1 p.m. ET to learn how to level up your interview and negotiating skills, build your ideal career, boost your income and grow your wealth. Register for free today.

Check out:

The wage gap gets worse for women in their 30s and 40s—and it's not just the 'motherhood penalty'

Want to be smarter and more successful with your money, work & life? Sign up for our newsletter!

I'm an American living in a $2,100/month luxury, 2-bedroom apartment in Copenhagen, Denmark
I live in a $2,100/month luxury, 2-bedroom apartment in Copenhagen, Denmark