Economics is still a male-dominated profession. Among full professors, only 1 out of every 8 is a woman. Among assistant professors, women are a little less than 1 in 3, similar to their share of undergraduate economics majors. It is a field that has struggled to appeal to women and struggled to retain the women who find it appealing.
When Claudia Goldin, who was just awarded the 2023 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences, studied economics in the 1960s, first as an undergraduate at Cornell and later as a doctoral student at the University of Chicago, women were even scarcer. The American Economic Association didn’t start formally publishing the number of females in the profession until 1972, when women made up just 7.2% of new PhDs and 2.4% of full professors.
It must have taken a lot of grit back then to dig through archives and document facts about “The Work and Wages of Single Women, 1870 to 1920” and “The Economic Status of Women in the Early Republic.”
She not only had to count on men to read these papers and decide to publish them. She had to count on the good opinion of men who had studied work extensively, but rarely given a second thought to how food got on the table, clothes got on backs, or the next generation was nurtured.
Goldin was documenting the changing roles of women in society at a time when many male economists just didn’t care. Today, it might seem crazy that male economists once thought women were mostly irrelevant to important things like the macroeconomy. But if it is confusing to you, that’s because of Claudia Goldin and the army of economists that she has trained to see the world differently.
Even while her work was revolutionary, it built on the work of the economists who came before her, highlighting how scholars can pave the way for the next generation. Gary Becker rejoined the faculty at the University of Chicago when she was a student. He went on to win the Nobel for applying the tools of economics to answer broader questions about human behavior. Goldin’s dissertation adviser Robert Fogel won the 1993 Nobel Prize in economics for “renewed research in economic history by applying economic theory and quantitative methods in order to explain economic and institutional change.”
Goldin took these lessons and expanded on them, giving economics scope to analyze more of the richness of women’s lives.
But for many years, Goldin had to go it alone. When it came to the macroeconomy, women were seen as side players, secondary earners, a novelty not worth studying. Goldin saw identity long before “identity politics” was a catchphrase. She saw structural barriers long before structural racism entered the mainstream. As an economist, she saw the forces of supply and demand as interwoven with identity and social structure and documented the way those connections shaped women’s choices. As identity and structure shifted, so too did those choices. She systematically documented these changes for decades, even as her colleagues in the profession remained essentially blind to half the population.
She wrote in her 2021 book “Career and Family” that “the journey to attaining, then balancing, career and family has been in motion for more than a century.” She has been a detective searching for answers to explain these changes for more than 50 years, expanding her lens to include over 200 years of history. That work has helped us think systematically about what has led to these changes and what might still stand in our way.
Claudia Goldin was one of my dissertation advisers. I like to think that I’ve been one of the soldiers she trained to think about work and family differently. I often wonder whether I would have stayed with economics if I hadn’t had the good fortune to fall under her tutelage. In that way, she has advanced women in economics, student by student, generation by generation, encouraging them to stick with the field and building advocates for a more inclusive vision of economics and the economy.
Winning the Nobel Prize is a recognition that the profession now sees the revolution that she has wrought. Governments around the globe recognize that policy that shapes families also shapes the economy. Students around the world study women’s labor force behavior as essential to understanding the economy. This public celebration of her life’s work is not only a moment to appreciate what Goldin has done, but a moment for all women to celebrate; it’s another step toward full citizenship.
And I hope it will inspire a new generation of young women to find economics appealing – and inspire the profession to find even more ways to include them.
Betsey Stevenson is a professor of public policy and economics at the University of Michigan. She was on the president’s Council of Economic Advisers and was chief economist at the U.S. Department of Labor.