This Harvard economist revolutionized our understanding of why women earn less than men

This Harvard economist revolutionized our understanding of why women earn less than men
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Harvard economist Claudia Goldin has dedicated her career to researching women’s changing roles in the US economy. She’s studied everything from how the rise of birth-control pills have altered women’s approaches to marriage and education to why more women are working in full-time jobs past retirement age.

Goldin’s own career arc reflects some of the remarkable changes working women have experienced over the past few decades. In 1990, Goldin became the first woman to achieve tenure in Harvard’s economics department—and proved herself a careful negotiator. “It’s obviously very difficult, particularly in my field, to turn an offer from Harvard down,” she told the Harvard Crimson after receiving the offer, noting that she was holding off on accepting before she heard the terms of the contract.

Around the same time, she published a highly influential book called Understanding the Gender Gap, which challenged conventional wisdom about the root causes of unequal pay between the sexes. In essence, Goldin argued that outright sexism wasn’t to blame for the gap. Instead, the underlying issue was that women with kids are more likely than men to seek out “temporal flexibility“—that is, jobs with more flexible hours or remote-work options. These roles tend to pay less, even when they require the same amount of work. Closing the gap ultimately requires that employers take the need for work/family balance seriously, and change their pay structures. It’s still making waves in the media, with the New York Times, Freakonomics, and All Things Considered still exploring the ramifications of her theory in recent years.

In an interview with Quartz, Goldin reflects on the importance of history in solving today’s most pressing issues, and explains the persistent mindset that keeps her in fighting form.

1. What’s your big idea that other people aren’t thinking about or wouldn’t agree with? Why is it so important?

History matters. The past is always with us; there is no issue of importance that can be solved without considering the past.

2. What behavior or personality trait do you most attribute to your success?

Curiosity. Persistence. Working with the best, and not caring that I am not the best. Most of all, chilling with my dog.

3. If you could make one change to help women at work, what would it be?

Have retreats for women. (We are having our second in two weeks).

4. At the start of your career, what do you wish you had known? What, if anything, do you wish you had not believed?

Wish I had known: more econometrics.

Wish I had not believed: that I needed to know more econometrics.

5. When in your career did you feel most despondent, and what did you do to turn it around?

When I felt most despondent: an hour ago. Everything is relative. I am not the despondent type.

What I did to to turn it around: persist.

6. A key part of success is building strong professional relationships. What practice do you use to cultivate them with your colleagues?

Get personal. Take an interest in their passions, their family. If they have a dog, it is much easier. Everyone wants to talk about their dog.

7. What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?

From Robert W. Fogel, the 1993 winner of the Nobel prize in economics. He gave advice by example. He believed, and taught me, that what we study as economic historians really matters for today, even if it happened long ago.

8. If there’s one thing men can do to improve women’s life at work, it would be…

Want what women want. If men wanted to take more responsibility at home (real responsibility), then workplaces would be structured differently, and men and women would be treated and paid more equally in the labor market. It’s that simple.

Bonus Questions:

The mountain I’m willing to die on… is freedom.

Everyone should own… a dog (but dogs own us).

This interview is part of How We’ll Win, a project exploring the fight for gender equality at work. Read more interviews with industry-leading women here.