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Harvard professor: ‘Greedy jobs’ continue holding back female workers despite progress

Claudia Goldin’s new book argues fundamental changes still must be made to achieve workplace and couple equity, Sheila Flynn writes

Monday 09 October 2023 23:56 BST
Harvard professor Claudia Goldin has spent decades studying history, economics and women in the workplace
Harvard professor Claudia Goldin has spent decades studying history, economics and women in the workplace (Claudia Goldin)
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Harvard Professor Claudia Goldin had been working for years on her latest book about career, family and women when the coronavirus pandemic hit. Fine-tuning edits and a lecture from the home she shares in Cambridge, Massachusetts with her husband and their performance dog, Pika, she says a “moment of elation” hit.

“That’s when I began to realise that the book had to be infused – not redone – but infused with the present,” she tells The Independent.

“I realised that everything that I had been working on, it was as if I had created a magnifying glass that was looking at the current period,” she says. “As an historian, I’m used to looking at the distant period and making it current – and suddenly, I was realising that I was using the past to look at the present in ways that I hadn’t thought about.”

The pandemic had abruptly and fundamentally changed the workplace in a way that “was very scary, because you were sort of living through a period [in which] you had no idea what was going to happen at the other end,” Prof Goldin tells The Independent. “We still don’t have a clear idea. And so I began to rewrite more with the current moment in mind.”

Her new book, Career and Family: Women’s Century Long Journey Towards Equity, not only charts women’s strides in the workplace and continued challenges but also does incorporate recent developments such as the widespread advent of remote work. Prof Goldin essentially posits that women and society face a “new problem with no name” – building upon the Betty Friedan-coined reference.

Women are making more and more educational and professional advancements and pay is equalising, Prof Goldin writes after meticulous analysis of years of data. Many start out on an equal or near-equal footing after college and at the beginning of their careers – but gaps soon widen based on the career choices of individuals and couples as professionals consider childcare and babies come along, when women continue to shoulder the largest share of the burden.

“It’s always been the problem, but the point is that, when you have greater barriers around you, you often can’t see what the eventual problem is going to be,” she tells The Independent. “So I think, over time, there has been tremendous progress – and, over time, I think the clouds have parted and we see what the real problem has been all along – but we haven’t really been able to explore that problem because we’ve had so many barriers.

“If you can’t go outside, you don’t know if it’s raining.”

One of the main problems amidst “tremendous progress,” however, is the uptake by women of what Prof Goldin calls “greedy jobs”, employing a term utilised in previous writings.

“A very simple explanation would be that, if you work twice the number of hours, you get more than twice the pay” in “greedy jobs,” she tells The Independent. “Of course, it’s not just number of hours, because women who work in many of the jobs that we can list – finance, management, law, academia – work many, many hours; they work 45 to 50 hours a week. So it’s not just generally the number of hours, it’s which hours: So is it the dinner hour? Is it the weekend? Is it the vacation? Is it two in the morning?”

Women who start in these “greedy jobs”, then, tend not to advance as far or fast in their careers as their male partners because they take a step back to raise families. Prof Goldin, among her impressive data and facts, weaves in anecdotes to demonstrate that current and common pattern.

Covid inadvertently shone a light on everything Prof Goldin had been researching – but corporate and cultural changes could perhaps pave a way for recognition of the problems, continued inequity and potential solutions.

“It might backfire in certain ways, but I think the very fact that firms appear to be learning – corporations, especially, appear to be learning – that you don’t have to send teams out to Tokyo to the M&A, and you don’t have to send another team to Zurich to negotiate the contract – that was a big deal,” she says.

The continued “problem with no name”, however, will require more than just changes in corporate culture or work travel demands. Instead, attitude and social norms must continue to shift.

Prof Goldin writes in the opening pages of her book: “We will never get to the bottom of the gender earnings gap until we understand the trajectory of the far larger problem of which it is a symptom. The gender earnings gap is a result of the career gap; the career gap is at the root of couple inequity.”

The Henry Lee Professor of Economics, however – who says she teaches “the extraordinary” – remains optimistic in the face of all her research as workplaces (and couples) continue to progress.

“I know many who share wonderful lives with ... an equal, who have three kids,” she tells The Independent, adding: “I think back at what this amazing student of mine said, which is, when I asked ‘What would you like?’ She said, ‘I want a man who wants what I want.’

“She put it perfectly, and it can be done. It might be costly for a while, but it just depends on how much you value couple equity. I see more and more around me, couples that do value couple equity. And the men I see ... are proud of the fact that they have given something up so that they have couple equity.”

She adds: “It’s not that they’ve given something up, it’s that they’ve gotten something in return – which is time with their children.”

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