Lunch lecture highlights research on women in the workforce

UW economics prof showcases Nobel-winning work by Claudia Goldin

Illustration by Gabrielle Funk

Gender-based wage disparities are a widely discussed topic, but popular discourse often fails to capture the evolving nature of their causes.

Harvard economics professor Claudia Goldin’s groundbreaking research has helped shine a light on how pregnancies and childcare disrupt women’s careers and lower their earning potential, contributing to pay gaps.

University of Winnipeg economics professor Xiao-Yuan Dong detailed Goldin’s Nobel Memorial Prize-winning contributions to feminist economics research in a lunch lecture on Nov. 1.

Dong explained that Goldin’s distinctive methodological approaches helped deepen understanding of the factors shaping women’s labour-force participation.

Goldin made a splash in the early 1990s when she analyzed 200 years of data about women in the workforce to show that women were driven out of employment and into unpaid care work during the initial stages of industrialization. At the time, most economists thought economic growth consistently increased women’s labour-force participation.

“Most of the labour economists who do gender research perhaps (don’t) go back that far ... you may focus on a particular country or particular industry,” Dong says. “The lens of history is very rich to see that American women (have) come a long way until today.”

Later in Goldin’s career, she applied her penchant for historical analysis to the study of work-family balance among college-educated women. She divided 20th-century American women graduates into five age groups based on birth year.

Goldin characterizes each group in terms of career-family priorities (for example, cohort three, which focuses on “family then career”). She writes that each age group is “unified by the constraints they faced and by the aspirations formed within (or despite) those constraints.”

This cohort-based approach makes it easier to identify which factors most impact how women approach these choices. It also helped researchers uncover a lag between social progress and women’s advancement arising from how expectations change between generations.

Dong says young women’s expectations about their career prospects may be “off the mark” if their mothers’ investments in post-secondary education didn’t translate to career success, often due to childcare obligations. Young women then become biased toward under-estimating the benefits of going to college or university.

This impact operated in the opposite direction for Dong, who made her key education decisions in 1970s China. She says the country’s centrally planned economy homogenized women’s expectations about future economic opportunities.

“All women participate(d) in the labour force. My mother had four kids and also work(ed) full time,” she says. “The decision to go to college (was) an easy choice, because all the mothers in China work(ed) full time. You (had) no doubt about your future employment prospects.”

However, in the decades since China reformed its economy in 1978, its gender pay and employment gap has increased, contrary to global trends.

In terms of policy implications, Dong says the body of feminist economics research inspired by Goldin is expansive enough that “the facts are there” to back a policy-led cultural shift toward eliminating the wage gap.

She notes that countries leading in gender equality like Sweden, where 30 per cent of all parental leave is taken by men, still need to work to ensure that factors like the inherently uneven demands of breastfeeding are accounted for.

“If all the earning differentials come from (the) parenthood effect, then (the) whole society ha(s) to balance production and reproduction,” she says. “(Do) you equally value paid work and unpaid work or still undervalue care provision?”

Published in Volume 78, Number 09 of The Uniter (November 9, 2023)

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