Cecilia Rouse, a colleague and former student of Claudia Goldin, explains Goldin’s perseverance in unearthing datasets that allowed her to document trends in labor and education, particularly with respect to women. Rouse also praises Goldin’s courage to prioritize the study of women and discusses what it was like to work with the recent Nobel Prize-winning economist on seminal work.

When the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences announced Claudia Goldin as this year’s recipient of the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences, a collective cheer was heard. Not only is Claudia brilliant, creative, curious, and committed, she is also one of the most path-breaking members of the economic community. Trained at the University of Chicago, she revels in applying microeconomic principles to phenomena in the labor market, particularly those that have historically affected women. Because of her devotion to scholarly inquiry, and her ability to persuasively piece together historical data with a coherent narrative, we now have a more complete picture of women in the economy, as well as of changes in our educational system and its implications for the labor market.   

Around the time that Claudia was born in 1946, the female labor force participation rate in the United States was 32%, rising to around 44% as she completed her doctoral studies in 1972, reaching a high of 60% in the late 1990s, and then drifting back to 57% today.  She has thus witnessed first-hand the increase and subsequent stagnation in women’s participation in the formal labor market. Claudia has sought to explain this trend, including by putting it in historical context. That has been no small feat.  Labor economists today are accustomed to analyzing large relatively readily available data sets that represent, say, a national population. But in the pre-digital age, large-scale data sets were generally not available to shed light on the economies of the first half of the 20th century and earlier. This has led researchers like Claudia to seek unusual and bespoke data sets, often representing a subgroup of some kind. Understanding the extent to which the data set applies more generally is part of the challenge and art of piecing together the story. Claudia Goldin does all of this—and more—masterfully.

For example, in “Understanding the Gender Gap:  An Economic History of American Women”—published in 1990, with complimentary blurbs from five male economists— Claudia squarely takes on the role of discrimination against women. Not only does she document the role of education and work experience (the “usual suspects”), but she also presents direct evidence of how societal norms have been codified in the workplace. I’ll bet that until reading Claudia’s book, most labor economists (and others!) were unaware that between about 1900 and 1930 many companies and school districts adopted so-called “marriage bars”—explicit policies against hiring or retaining women once they married. To quantify the impact of marriage bars in education, she assembled data from a variety of sources, such as surveys conducted by the National Education Association. Estimating the prevalence of these bars in firms was an even harder task (since unlike school districts, there is no centralized organization representing companies). That did not deter Claudia; she painstakingly pieced together data from no fewer than a dozen relatively unknown data sources accessed via the National Archives. This effort has produced a rich set of data that she and others have gone on to analyze to further our understanding of women in our economy at the turn of the 20th century.

Twenty years later, Claudia’s work with Lawrence Katz on “The Race between Education and Technology” highlights the increase in U.S. educational attainment over the first eight decades of the 20th century and its ties to technological change. This work also showcases her ability to unearth unusual, yet important, data about our past. The work draws on data such as an underappreciated 1915 State Census of Iowa, which contained information on education and income before the more widely known and analyzed 1940 U.S. Census, and reports from the U.S. Office of Education on secondary school enrollment. The result is a compelling portrait of the evolution of educational attainment in the U.S. over the past century and a stagnation since about 1980 that has contributed to income inequality. Their work has served as the motivation for increased emphasis on education and training as well as spawned a robust literature in its wake.

I first got to know Claudia when she supervised my PhD thesis at Harvard. She was a mentor in the truest sense of the word, not only guiding me through important economic analysis, but giving me a model of how to have a fulfilling career but not at the expense of my personal life. A few years later, I was able to see her research approach closer-up when we co-wrote a paper that studied the gendered impact of blind auditions on hiring in symphony orchestras and found they increased the proportion of women advanced through the process and eventually hired. When we started, we knew nothing about orchestra policies, and there was no readily available data set cataloging either hiring records or decision making. To estimate the impact of screens that prevent the selection committee from knowing the gender of the applicant, we traveled to orchestras, spent time copying audition records, interviewed the orchestra managers, spoke with musicians, and conducted a survey asking musicians about the procedures in the audition that landed them jobs in top orchestras. I have often said that the “orchestra paper” was the most fun for me to write, largely due to the fact that I worked on it with Claudia. Anyone who has that honor knows she approaches everything she does with precision, creativity, and a drive for excellence. (If you need further evidence of this, see her blog about her award-winning dog Pika!) 

It is so gratifying to see Claudia granted this richly deserved honor. Her courage to elevate the study of women in the male-dominated field of economics has helped pave the way for those who have sought to understand how women, and indeed other marginalized groups, fit into our economy. It is only by having a complete understanding of society and the underlying forces that have led to the current state of play that we can craft effective strategies to make it better.  The guidelines for the Nobel prize, as dictated in Alfred Nobel’s will, is that the award should go to individuals who have “conferred the greatest benefit to humankind” in their field. The selection of Claudia Goldin more than honors that directive.

Articles represent the opinions of their writers, not necessarily those of the University of Chicago, the Booth School of Business, or its faculty.