Claudia Goldin’s Nobel Prize: From a Milestone to a Stepping Stone
October 19th, 2023
By Carolina Herrera Cano
Recently, Claudia Goldin was awarded the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences for her research on women’s labour market outcomes. Notably, she is only the third woman in history to receive this prestigious honour, and her legacy represents a milestone for mainstream economics. With this decision, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences recognizes and underscores the ongoing need to highlight gender-based injustices. This breakthrough serves as an inspiration for revisiting the historical factors that have perpetuated gender inequalities and will foster new discussions within feminist economics aimed at achieving gender and economic justice.
Goldin’s contribution comprises a series of historical studies that show women’s status in the United States labour market over 200 years. Goldin has explored the economic impact of women’s increased participation in higher education, the delay in marriage and motherhood, and changing gendered attitudes and expectations, especially on relation to family and career. As Nancy Folbre asserts, ‘work is greedy, and families are needy. Women prefer the flexibility to commit to both but pay a high price for “having it all”’. Recently, her analyses have focused on the labour market in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic, and the persistence of social gender norms around care work, with women having dedicated more hours to childcare than men during the crisis. Therefore, the novelty of this Nobel Prize comes less from the surprising nature of the findings, but from her thorough and sustained dedication to the analysis of women’s labour market outcomes.
The new laureate belongs to a tradition of economists analysing how the economic system is inextricably connected to gendered social norms and power dynamics, and the consequent inequalities for women. Since the 1960s, theorists from various political and economic affiliations have explored and reviewed women’s experiences with similar results to Goldin’s: the gender wage gap and the setbacks of pursuing a career while taking on unpaid care. For Goldin, such inequity is today less based on social gender norms than on the inefficiencies of the labour market, which penalise flexibility; thus, she advocates for critical adjustments at workplaces. Goldin’s ideas, therefore, substantiate the political causes that feminisms have supported for decades but, as many Feminist Economists have argued they are insufficient to transform the injustices of the labour market.
Criticism of Goldin’s work centres on whether the foundation of her ideas captures and accounts for the status, and experiences, of all women in the labour market. The focus on the specific yet privileged population she analyses in her studies (highly educated and professional couples) blur the heterogeneity of women’s experiences and the more considerable challenges that racialised and impoverished women endure in precarious labour conditions while managing the care burden of other families. Nancy Folbre, for instance, asserts that Goldin’s conclusions do not constitute a “grand gender revolution,” and her concerns about the efficiency of the labour market models condemn some women’s unprivileged conditions but fail to challenge the structural injustices of the current institutional arrangements that sustain gender gaps.
Personally, I understand why, to some, Goldin’s ideas do not emphasize enough the structural flaws of the labour system and how a focus on privileged women can’t advance gender equality. However, I interpret Goldin’s work as a very specific and valuable contribution that should be used to further promote feminist economics endeavours. As Goldin herself has rightly said, the experiences of underprivileged women while not part of her study samples, should rightly be a concern.
The value of this discussion is that it reminds us that the sum of the work in the field of feminist economics is undoubtedly more important than its individual parts, and, more importantly, that these parts should nurture each other. What is certain is that this Nobel Prize in Economics fuels the discussion within gender and feminist economics, contributing to charting the path toward advancing gender and economic justice. Perhaps her significant contribution is not a milestone but a stepping stone for future research, public policy, and gender equality.
Folbre, Nancy Career and Family: Women’s Century-Long Journey Toward. Equityhttps://eh.net/book_reviews/career-and-family-womens-century-long-journey-toward-equity/
 Carolina Herrera Cano has recently joined the WiSE Centre for Economic Justice from Colombia via a studentship as a PhD Researcher