Why do women still tend to earn less than men? There is nobody better placed to answer that question than economic historian Claudia Goldin, the winner of the 2023 Nobel memorial prize in economics. Her answer tells us how to fight unfairness, but also how to create saner and more productive working lives for everybody.
Let’s nod to a few obvious explanations, all of which play a role. There’s outright discrimination, something Goldin examined with Cecilia Rouse in a celebrated study of the leading US orchestras. As those orchestras started to ask job applicants to audition from behind a screen, the proportion of women who were accepted increased dramatically.
Then there is the question of what career choices make sense to a person who might become pregnant. In the 1960s, the contraceptive pill was not widely available to unmarried women in the US. Law, medicine, dentistry and management degrees were utterly male-dominated in 1970. No wonder: investing in such a profession felt expensive and risky for a young woman who might suddenly find herself to be a young mother. Goldin and her colleague (and spouse) Lawrence Katz showed that as US states liberalised access to the contraceptive pill during the 1970s, young women surged into these courses. By giving women unprecedented control over their fertility, the contraceptive pill allowed them to invest in their careers.
For many women, however, the pill is not a method of preventing motherhood completely, but a way of delaying it until a more convenient moment. Which brings us to the present day. Goldin’s research suggests that much of the gap between men and women is more properly described as a gap between mothers and non-mothers. The reason? There are certain jobs — “greedy jobs” — that often pay very well indeed but require long and unpredictable hours.
(Goldin did not coin the term. It was first used by the sociologists Lewis Coser and Rose Laub Coser, a married couple. He used the idea to describe institutions which “seek exclusive and undivided loyalty”; she used it to describe the demands of motherhood.)
So what is a greedy job? If you may need to work late, take work phone calls at the weekend, or travel to Singapore for a meeting, all without much notice and with the absolute assumption that nothing else will get in the way of you doing so, then you have a greedy job. If you are also the primary caregiver for children then, as Rose Laub Coser understood, that’s a greedy job, too, arguably greedier than it has ever been. And it is in the nature of greedy jobs that you can only have one of them at a time.
A common arrangement between highly educated, highly employable heterosexual couples, then, is that one of them (often the woman) takes the unpaid greedy job of parenting, perhaps alongside a more flexible paid job, while the other (often the man) takes the well-paid greedy job of being a corporate lawyer or investment banker or C-suite executive.
There’s nothing inevitable about this. The couple could hire a live-in nanny: another greedy job. Or they could both work in flexible jobs where the expectation is that family comes first. But both of those options come at a steep price, since the most lavishly paid jobs are usually greedy.
As Goldin puts it in her book Career and Family (2021), “As college graduates find life partnerships and begin planning families, in the starkest terms they are faced with a choice between a marriage of equals and a marriage with more money.”
The couple could flip gender norms, with the woman working unpredictable hours and hopping on the flights to Singapore, while the man is the one doing the school pick-up and dropping everything when there’s an emergency. Apart from a few weeks around the moment of birth itself, that’s perfectly possible. But it remains unusual, so both of them will spend time explaining themselves.
What to do? We can all challenge the assumption that it’s the mother who must plan childcare and deal with emergencies so that her spouse can focus on his greedy job. But we also need to question why so many jobs are still greedy.
Goldin contrasts lawyers with pharmacists. Law is a quintessentially greedy job, with the biggest bucks coming when you are a partner at a law firm — a job that is not compatible with being the person who drops everything when a child falls off a swing in the school playground.
In contrast, you can be very well paid as a pharmacist, even though many pharmacists have non-greedy jobs. In the US, more than half of pharmacists are women and the gender pay gap for pharmacists is tiny. This, says Goldin, is a matter of job design: pharmacists work in teams and are substitutable for each other. If someone is not available to work, someone else can fill in.
Why aren’t more jobs designed like this? It takes effort and attention to create substitutable jobs. Processes must be standardised, excellent records kept; tasks assigned and monitored using a proper workflow system rather than everyone jumping on email to figure out who has the baton. These better systems don’t just allow the very best workers to operate under non-greedy conditions, they also allow for better teamwork and less burnout. Yet the people with the power to make these changes have not yet seen them as worth all the bother.
My hope — and Goldin’s too — is that the shock the pandemic delivered to working practices everywhere will help to unlock better systems, leading to further progress in gender equality and many other benefits besides. But she is a historian, not a soothsayer. We must wait and see. Or we must fight for the changes we want.
Written for and first published in the Financial Times on 20 October 2023.
My first children’s book, The Truth Detective is now available (not US or Canada yet – sorry).