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Women & Power 2023

Advice from the Nobel Prize winner who’s seen the ‘Barbie’ movie multiple times

The economist draws a spotlight on the gender gap — and offers a few words of advice to the “Kens.”

Just after learning October 9 that she’d won a Nobel Prize, Claudia Goldin, at home, speaks with a reporter.Josh Reynolds/Associated Press

Read more stories from the 2023 Women & Power issue.

The ingenuity of Harvard economist Claudia Goldin is her innate ability to analyze the gender gap in a way that everyone gets it.

Which is how I found myself talking to the newest Nobel laureate in economics about the meaning of this summer’s blockbuster movie, Barbie.

Closing the gap, Goldin tells me, requires men to step up their duties at home — from cooking to school drop-off to making dentist appointments for the kids. She calls it “couple equity” — the idea that women can’t achieve equity in the workplace unless there’s equity at home. In other words, “Ken” needs to fully participate. “The real bottom line of Barbie is that the only way the ‘Barbies’ are going to have meaningful lives is if the ‘Kens’ are there with them,” says Goldin, who has watched the movie at least twice. “They’re not going to do it by themselves.”

This is exactly why so many who have followed Goldin’s work love her. She is as much an economist who delves into data, as she is a storyteller of livelihoods. She is that rare economist whose work is relatable. So when Goldin got the early morning call in October from the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences about the Nobel Prize, it was as if all of us won, too. For all the struggles working women have been through, we finally felt seen.

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In bestowing the honor, the academy wrote that Goldin has “provided the first comprehensive account of women’s earnings and labour market participation through the centuries. Her research reveals the causes of change, as well as the main sources of the remaining gender gap.”

Goldin, 77, is only the third woman to win the economics prize and the first one to do so alone. Her research indicates that women have made incredible strides in the workplace. She showed how increased access to contraception starting in the 1970s allowed women to delay marriage and childbirth, and choose high-powered careers such as law and medicine.

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Still, after all these years, a gender gap persists. Today a woman earns about 82 cents for every $1 earned by a man. Turns out a wage gap widens when working women start a family. That’s because women tend to reduce their hours, or take less demanding roles because they want to — or have to — spend more time taking care of children.

Goldin found the gap is surprisingly worse among highly-educated women whose higher-paying jobs demand more of their time. She calls it the curse of the “greedy jobs” — intense and lucrative client-facing roles like law firm partners and globe-trotting consultants. Women tend to give up these jobs to shoulder more of the child care at home and leave the breadwinning to their high-earning husbands.

Goldin’s true power is that she’s been able to document what so many women feel about the gender gap but could never prove. She has done exactly that over an academic career that has spanned more than four decades.

Goldin’s Nobel Prize “legitimizes something all of us have known for so long that there is a difference in the workplace about how women get paid and how they get advanced,” says Kim Borman, executive director of the Boston Women’s Workforce Council, which works with the city of Boston and employers to analyze the wage gap.

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“We all knew instinctively that was happening. We would be brushed off when we talk to our boss,” Borman adds. “She did the hard work to go in and prove it through research.”

More than 1,600 emails poured into Goldin’s inbox in the days following the Nobel announcement. Many of them from current and former students who were moved to tears of joy upon learning about her prestigious prize.

One of those emails came from Nava Ashraf, an economics professor at the London School of Economics and Political Science, who earned her doctorate from Harvard. Ashraf’s research focuses on gender and the family, primarily in developing countries, and while she wasn’t one of Goldin’s students, she was influenced and inspired by her. “Had tears well in my eyes...I was so emotional because of your COURAGE to open this whole field and keep persisting,” Ashraf wrote to Goldin. “So so so happy to see your incredible work recognized in this way, it’s such a win for women everywhere, for anyone daring to study what might be considered marginal and is anything but.”

Goldin’s latest paper — which coincidentally came out the day she nabbed the Nobel — is titled “Why Women Won.” In the face of the rollback of reproductive rights, Goldin reminds us that women have much to celebrate over the past century, from earning the right to vote to going to college to equal rights in the workplace — all of which have led to significant advancement of women in the United States. Perhaps it’s Goldin’s way of telling us we must persist. We’ve come this far. Now let’s keep going.

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Shirley Leung is a Business columnist. She can be reached at shirley.leung@globe.com.