Women in Economics: Claudia Goldin

September 07, 2022

This 28-minute podcast was published Sept. 7, 2022.

Claudia Goldin

“I like to be enabling, but have all students follow their own passions,” says Claudia Goldin, the Henry Lee Professor of Economics at Harvard University and co-director of the Gender in the Economy Study Group at the National Bureau of Economic Research. She talks with St. Louis Fed Media Relations Coordinator Maria Hasenstab.



Maria Hasenstab: Welcome to the St Louis Fed’s Women in Economics Podcast Series where we interview women who are making their marks in the field of economics. I'm Maria Hasenstab, your host.

In this episode we hear from Claudia Goldin, the Henry Lee Professor of Economics at Harvard University and Co-director of the Gender in the Economy Study Group at the National Bureau of Economic Research. Claudia is an economic historian and labor economist. And has long been a champion for women in the economy. Her research looks at the female labor force, gender gap in earnings, income inequality and so many more important topics. And she has authored several awarding-winning books, including:

  • Understanding the Gender Gap: An Economic History of American Women;
  • The Race Between Education and Technology with Larry Katz;
  • And her most recent book that came out in 2021 was Career & Family: Women's Century-Long Journey toward Equity.

Claudia, it is an honor to have you on the Women in Economics Podcast Series. Welcome.

Claudia Goldin: Ah, glad to be here.

Hasenstab: You are a professor at Harvard, as we have mentioned, and you started out as an assistant professor of economics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the 1970s, and you've also taught at Princeton and the University of Pennsylvania. How has teaching economics changed over five decades?

Goldin: That's a great question. So I'm going to answer it in a way that's a little different from what you could have expected because I think you're asking about how the teaching of the field has changed, but I'm going to say something about who does what in terms of teaching. So I think it will surprise many people that there have been great changes in the teaching, advising and committee work of younger versus older members of the profession. So this is sort of a personal story — my journey.

Hasenstab: Oh great!

Goldin: When I began as an assistant professor — and this was both when I was at Wisconsin and at Princeton — it was the younger more junior members of the faculty who did the big courses often, who had the greater teaching burdens, or I should say loads, than the older, more senior group who would sort of figure out how to buy out their time. I taught the big intro courses at Wisconsin. That included most of the football team, plus 280 others. There were no computers, remember, no PowerPoint. The room had loud radiators. It was drafty and, remember it was Madison, Wisconsin. I'll stop there at the discomforts. I also taught the big intro course at Princeton, but when I became a tenured faculty member, the tables had turned. Oh, it's not because of me, of course, it happened all over. Younger faculty received the lighter loads, and the senior faculty, the somewhat heavier ones. In fact, today, many places hire assistant professors and these individuals do not truly onboard for one or two years; they have post-docs, for example. That isn't necessarily a bad thing. But just as a matter of fact I got to teach the heavier load when I was younger and when I'm older.

Hasenstab: That is a really interesting change. How do you feel with that that course load?

Goldin: I think it's made me in some ways a better person — same way maybe working out makes you a better person. I have always found that teaching is a very, very important part of my research and that I learn through teaching.

Hasenstab: Absolutely, so exercising those teaching muscle muscles is helping with your research. That's great.

Goldin: That's exactly right.

Hasenstab: You are the co-director of the NBER’s Gender in the Economy Study Group and, previously, you were the director of the NBER’s Development of the American Economy program. Tell me about your work at the National Bureau of Economic Research.

Goldin: I've been a part of the National Bureau of Economic Research since Marty moved it to Cambridge, or at least took over in Cambridge. There was a small office in Cambridge when he was made the president and CEO. That means that I've been a part of the NBER since 1978. Now there are people who have been a part of the NBER for a little bit longer, but that's a pretty long time.

I was the director of, as you said, the Development of the American Economy program from 1989 to 2017, for 28 years. The DAE, as it's known, began as what I will call a real program. It had a real agenda, as opposed to just having a lot of really good active researchers who come together every now and then. It was Bob Fogel's vision of what these programs should be when I took over, so he really set the stage when he began the program in 1978. He had a vision. And I continued that for a while. So his vision was that this program, just like the NBER, was continuing to build the statistical foundations of the United States. That's why the original mission of the NBER since it was founded in 1920 was to create the statistical foundations of the U.S. economy. So when I took over from Bob I tried to continue that for a while. I encouraged various types of research through means that I could. I didn't really have a tremendous number of means that was, for example, themes of conferences, conference volumes, inviting certain people to be members of the group. I also continued a monograph series and edited almost 30 volumes in it. My own work was encouraged by some of the great economic historians of the past: Bob Fogel, Bob Goldman, for example. And it was, as I said, part of the NBER's original mission to create the statistical foundation and my role in it was to uncover the historical data on the female labor force.

But after I was director of the program for almost three decades, I thought it needed something new and I stepped down from it and my position has been taken over by Leah Boustan and Bill Collins. I, then, as you said became co-director of a study group called Gender in the Economy. Something that some people know but by going to the NBER website is that I am the archivist of the NBER and it's a very easy job, because we don't have a lot of archives. (Laughter)

Hasenstab: Still that's a great title. We've got to add that to your CV; I didn't see archivist listed there.

Goldin: No, I've never put it on my CV; I sort of hide it. Anyone who finds it will contact me and say, do you have the following, and in general I would have to say I'm terribly sorry, but we don't have that. (Laughter)

Hasenstab: Oh that is too funny. It sounds like you're doing such important work at the NBER and so great to have that connection like you said to your teaching and how they might play into each other. Let's back up a little bit, Claudia, and talk about your education. You went to undergrad at Cornell University and went on to earn your Ph.D. at the University of Chicago. How did you become a student of economics?

Goldin: So, like many individuals you enter college with some idea of what you want to do and it's in large measure because high schools teach what I call generally the primary colors. So you know, English. You probably don't know anything about philosophy. You might know something about some social sciences, but you probably don't know much about anthropology. In many places including where I was, you knew no economics. I went to Bronx High School of Science, and I knew a lot of science. And so when I went to Cornell, I went there with the intention to study not biology, but something more, in some sense, narrower. I went there to study bacteriology.

Hasenstab: Wow. OK.

Goldin: An undergraduate level course in bacteriology at Cornell when I was in between my junior and my senior years in high school. And so when I entered Cornell, I had a fair amount of bravado about what I knew. I was definitely going to be a scientist; I was going to be a microbe hunter. I was not going to be a physician because I thought of physicians as plumbers, and they were not scientists. Of course now I realize that many of them are scientists, but I wanted to be at the frontier of discovery.

But I got to Cornell, and I very rapidly discovered that I didn't know that much and that there were subjects about which I knew almost nothing. And so I decided to try lots of other subjects. So in my sophomore year I encountered a faculty member named Alfred Kahn, and Fred Kahn was an amazing economist. Ah, he was an amazing public servant. He was the head of the CAB and deregulated the airlines and essentially eliminated his position. He may be the only person in the history of bureaucracy to take over a position and then eliminate it. So I encountered Fred and his utter delight at using economics ah did for economics what the microbe hunters did for my interest in microbiology. And so I abandoned the microscope, and I moved my detective work to libraries and dusty archives and large amounts of data, and I've remained there ever since. And then in my senior year, I decided to pursue a Ph.D. in economics at the University of Chicago. I picked Chicago because Fred Kahn did regulatory economics. He was a student, ah professor of industrial organization. And so that's what I went to Chicago to do, and it may surprise many people to know that that's what I did at the University of Chicago. I did the program in industrial organization with George Stigler and Sam Peltzman and Ron Coase, and I loved it.

But I found other things as well. So when I went to Chicago it was really pure luck that I chose Chicago and I still do not know what led me to believe that it would have been a good place to study and a reasonable place to live. Hyde Park, in fact, at the time was the lousiest place to live that you can ever imagine.

But it was the very, very best place to do graduate work in economics. The greatest minds were there: Milton Friedman, George Stigler, Gary Becker, Al Harberger, Bob Fogel, Deirdre McCloskey, Zvi Griliches, Ron Coase, and the list goes on. These were an amazing group and they taught with true religious zeal. Bob Fogel became my mentor, and he directed my dissertation on the role of slavery in the urban and industrial South and he advised me during much of my career and like Fred Kahn, he was animated and passionate. He was a brilliant thinker a remarkable writer, an amazing debater as well.

My students today agonize about their futures. It paralyzes them, but I forged ahead without any clear vision. I think what I said is a pretty clear that I meandered around. Ron Coase one of my teachers once noted that he, Ron, came to realize where he had been going only after he arrived, and I would say the same thing is true for me.

Hasenstab: Wow! What a great list of teachers you mentioned, and you know you said you went into undergrad with the goal of being on the frontier of discovery and if I can say I think you've done that in the field of economics. So, how amazing.

Claudia, the ultimate goal of this podcast series is to inspire more women to consider studying economics and working in the field. You’re passionate about that subject, as well. I’ve read a lot about your involvement with the Undergraduate Women in Economics Challenge, an initiative to encourage more undergraduate women to major in economics. Essentially, in 2015-2016, that was the intervention year for this Challenge, where students were exposed to various interventions to see if it could lead to more women studying economics. And the results of the challenge found that some “uncomplicated and inexpensive interventions” can substantially increase the interest of women to major in economics. So I wanted to ask you to tell me more about the challenge and some of those successful interventions.

Goldin: Certainly. So it began when I was the president of the American Economic Association in 2013 and I realized that the fraction in the U.S. and elsewhere for that matter of undergraduates who measured in economics even at institutions that had exceptional programs was quite low. It was 25% to 30% at the undergraduate level. And so I decided that there must be some way to change that — maybe not the percent. In fact, if I increased the number of all undergraduates who majored in economics that wouldn't be that bad. So in some sense I would want to increase the ratio. But most importantly, I want to increase the numbers. And it appears to me — so when we began this, we interviewed a lot of people about what they thought economics was and I looked at some of the data because students are asked in the summer before they enter a university what they think they might major in, and it turns out that there are major impediments that exist before students even step into their dorm room.

Hasenstab: Yeah.

Goldin: Before they unpack their luggage… So I was in some sense surprised to learn that the impediment, by and large, was simply knowing what economics is all about and letting prospective students learn immediately upon unpacking their luggage that it really is about people, that particularly women versus men are interested in a field in which they are going to be studying people, like sociology and psychology or anthropology. And they viewed those fields as more people oriented than economics. On the other hand, the men viewed economics as about making money and finance, and that attracted them to the field a little bit disproportionately relative to women. And so, what we wanted to do was clarify what economics is all about. Economics is about finance, no doubt. But it's about lots of other things. It is about inequality and development and health and marriage and population change and immigration and climate change and even war. So the biggest barrier to women being part of an economics program is not its “mathiness” at all. It was that early on, both males and females were led to believe that economics was about something that it's not entirely about, and they were led to believe that it wasn't about something that it really is about. The field, you know, is actually just all about just making decisions, tons of different decisions that involved the allocation and production of scarce goods. It's about everything that has a price — real price or a shadow price — and that means that it's about just about everything under the sun. So, the other thing that one may wonder about is why do I care if there are more women in the field of economics.

Hasenstab: Why do you care? Claudia, tell us.

Goldin: Right? So there are two big reasons. One is that economics is important, useful, and we know from estimations that are causal, that it's highly lucrative. So why are women being cut out of something that is important, useful and a lucrative field? So that's the first point. We have put in place sort of informational barriers that needn't be there and it was my role to eliminate these informational barriers. Well, that's pretty easy. The only problem is that people come into the university with this level of misinformation. And we had to get them as soon as they were beginning to decide what courses to take to let them know that what they thought economics was about was not what it was fully about.

Hasenstab: So how did you? How did you reach the students before they even signed up for classes?

Goldin: Well, we allowed each of our treatment schools for which there were 20 to do it their own way. So some of them would have websites. As the president of the American Economic Association, I commissioned a video called “Economics: It's Not What You Think It Is.” (Laughter)

Hasenstab: I love that. Yes.

Goldin: And everyone can watch it. It's still online.

We allowed each of the treatment schools of which there were 20 to do it whichever way they found. The most useful, we made the video available. Many of them did their own videos. They had graduates from past years come back and talk about their own process of discovery in figuring out what economics was. That they may have thought it was one thing and then they took EC 101, EC 10 and it widened a little bit. But then they took the upper-level courses, wrote papers and they realized it was much, much better. Then they went into the job market, and they realized it was even bigger than that.

Hasenstab: So hearing from those students who had already experienced those upper-level classes and how that broadened their scope of what the field is, sharing that message with the incoming students?

Goldin: Exactly. The second reason that I was interested in changing the fraction of the total who are female is that economics has a large number of subfields, as you know. There's econometrics, there’s trade, macro, labor, health, history, education, IO, and theory and others. Well it turns out that men and women tend to go into different subfields. We have lots of data on that.

Hasenstab: Yes.

Goldin: Maybe we'll be able to change that in the future. But right now they do go into different subfields. And this is sort of a call for diversity in general if we don't have enough people in different buckets, we're going to have too little of something being produced.

Hasenstab: Yes, yes. Thank you so much for telling me about that. Your work and your career have been awarded numerous times — too many for me to list in this episode. Including recently the Visionary Award from the Council for Economic Education. In short, we know that you're well respected and have had a lot of success in this field and one way we believe that we can help the next generation of women in economics is by sharing some of the challenges we've faced and how we've overcome those obstacles. Do you have any challenges you'd like to share?

Goldin: So I'll be very honest, almost all of the challenges that I have faced are due to my own inabilities.

Hasenstab: Well, tell me about that.

Goldin: Well, they would take much too much time… It would be lack of knowledge lack of skills, going to graduate school ill prepared and therefore not taking the courses there, and remember graduate school then was only four years so we didn't have a lot of time to make up for deficiencies.

But there is one that wasn't my fault, and having more women in the discipline now has allowed me to co-author papers with the people I would like to work with, close friends. Not having female colleagues was an obstacle in terms of co-authorship, although I have co-authored many projects as well as the book you mentioned before with Larry Katz, who happens to be my husband.

Hasenstab: Yes! Co-authoring with your spouse. I hope that was a great experience.

Goldin: It was very, very good when the book was published. (Laughter)

Hasenstab: Yeah, I bet. (Laughter)

Claudia, earlier on you mentioned a lot of really great professors who made a difference in your education and so I wanted to follow up on that and ask about mentoring. Are there any notable mentors of yours who you’d like to discuss? And, as a professor and a leader in this field, do you feel responsibility to mentor?

Goldin: So as I noted my mentors were all men. There were amazing people. Bob Fogel, Gary Becker, Fred Kahn, those are the ones I mentioned. There were certainly others who weren't necessarily my teachers, but who by their very presence and who were in various departments in which I taught, one of them is Richard Easterlin, who is not a teacher but who taught me in some sense from a distance. He taught me from his work, from who he was, who he is in fact. These individuals believed in me, and they urged me on. I never had any sense that a single one of them saw me as a different person than their other students.

Bob Fogel did more than just mentor me by encouragement and providing sage advice. Bob always had missions. He had many different missions in his glorious academic life. And in some of them he wanted me to be a part of it. He wanted others to be part of it and that gave me a tremendous start in life. But I eventually needed, as many people do, to distinguish themselves from the enterprise of someone else. And so mentoring sometimes does come with a downside: One wants to be encouraged but not to be too much like one’s mentor.

I've learned from that. And I like to be enabling, but have all students follow their own passions. Sometimes it's difficult to say to someone: “Just go follow your passion; don't follow mine,” because they're not quite certain what it is yet.

I always remind them that the first mentor in the world was a woman and that was Athena. Remember, Athena disguised herself as the old man whose name was Mentor, who was a long friend of Odysseus and Odysseus left him in charge of Telemachus, Odysseus’ son and then Mentor fell down on the job. And Athena came in disguised herself as the old man Mentor and became the better appropriate, advisor to Odysseus's son Telemachus. And in fact, the word “mentor” began to be used in the way we use it only in the 20th century and of course it does come from The Odyssey.

So my advice to women is always to be an Athena to every Telemachus. The men need it.

Hasenstab: That is such great advice and I loved when you said you want to be enabling but also encourage your students to follow their passions.

Claudia, is there anything else you'd like to discuss today about women in economics?

Goldin: Oh, I'm just thrilled that I have female colleagues. I'm thrilled that they have families, that we see pregnant female economists and they are highly successful, tenured members of the academy. The way the field has evolved in terms of its diversity and its inclusion is something that I applaud.

Hasenstab: Absolutely, and we'll hope that it keeps evolving.

To hear more from the Women in Economics Podcast Series, visit stlouisfed.org/womeninecon. We’re also on Apple Podcasts, Spotify and wherever you like to listen to podcasts.

Claudia, thank you so much for sharing your time your career and your experiences are really inspiring. Thank you.

This podcast features conversations with women and underrepresented minorities who are making their marks in the field of economics. Views expressed are not necessarily those of the St. Louis Fed or Federal Reserve System.

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