UChicago alum Claudia Goldin wins Nobel Prize for research on gender and labor

Pioneering economist, AM’69, PhD’72, uncovered key drivers of differences in paid workforce

University of Chicago alum Claudia Goldin was awarded the Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel 2023 on Oct. 9 for her pioneering research on identifying drivers of gender differences in the labor market.

The renowned economic historian and labor scholar, who received her Ph.D. (1972) and master’s degree (1969) from UChicago, is the Henry Lee Professor of Economics at Harvard University. She is the third woman to receive the economics prize since it was first awarded in 1969 and the first solo winner.

“It certainly means a tremendous amount,” said Goldin, who is the 99th scholar associated with UChicago to receive a Nobel Prize. “It also means a lot because it’s an award for big ideas and for long-term change.”

The Nobel Foundation recognized Goldin “for having advanced our understanding of women’s labour market outcomes,” including providing the first comprehensive account of women’s participation in the paid workforce through the centuries. Though this participation has tripled in high-income countries over the last 100 years, according to the Foundation, women still earn on average 13% less than men. 

Goldin’s extensive use of archival research, digging where records are sparse or missing, has led to the surprising discovery that women’s labor history isn’t linear. 

“While the gender gap in earnings did close substantially over the last 200 years,” said Nobel Committee member Randi Hjalmarsson, “she shows us that this process was both slow and sporadic, punctuated by some periods of sharp change like in the 1940s and ‘80s.”

Her landmark book “Understanding the Gender Gap: An Economic History of American Women” (1990), drew from data such as National Archives records to reveal a complex story about gender, work and pay over the 19th and 20th centuries. Economic changes, evolving social norms and medical innovations have all affected how and when women work, Goldin found.

“I have always thought of myself as a detective,” Goldin said. “Being a detective means you have a question and the question is so important that you’ll go to any end to find it.”

Finding inspiration at UChicago  

Goldin’s aspirations for historical detective work started in childhood, where she was inspired by Paul de Kruif’s “Microbe Hunters” (1927). She began her studies in microbiology at Cornell University, before her fascination jumped to industrial organization. 

As a doctoral student at UChicago, Goldin's focus shifted to labor economics after future Nobel laureate Gary Becker arrived on campus. She was also inspired by future laureate Robert Fogel, who advised Goldin’s dissertation—a quantitative analysis of slavery in the antebellum U.S. South.  

“Her research follows very naturally from the mesh between Fogel and Becker, and obviously builds hugely on what they had done,” said Prof. Robert Shimer, chair of the Kenneth C. Griffin Department of Economics. “A theme of her work is the idea that if you don't change gender imbalances within the household, then you're not going to be able to change gender imbalances in the workplace. To me, this very much shows the empirical relevance of the ideas that Gary Becker talked about.”

“She's done absolutely amazing things, and we are excited about the prize and the research that she's done.”

Goldin joined the faculty at Harvard in 1990, where she was the first woman granted tenure by her department. In the past three decades, her research has covered a wide range of topics, including the female labor force, the gender wage gap, income inequality, technological change, education and immigration. Her most influential papers have concerned the history of women’s quest for career and family. 

Goldin’s study “Dynamics of the Gender Gap for Young Professionals in the Financial and Corporate Sectors”, with fellow Harvard scholar Lawrence Katz and UChicago Prof. Marianne Bertrand, found that after 10 to 16 years in the workforce, female University of Chicago MBAs were making 55 percent of their male counterparts’ earnings. Sixty percent of the difference, they concluded, came from career interruptions largely associated with motherhood.

Her most recent book “Career & Family: Women’s Century-Long Journey toward Equity” (2021) examines the experiences of women balancing career and family life from 1900 until today. She demonstrates how “greedy” work, jobs that pay more for working long hours and being on call, contributes to the wage gap.

“We know the gender gap is widened when families are formed,” said Goldin during a 2021 interview for the UChicago podcast “Capitalisn't.” “This doesn’t mean that women leave the workforce, it means that they take positions in which flexibility is cheaper. It’s the cost of flexibility that really matters.”