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Headshot of Claudia Goldin '67, recent winner of a Nobel Prize in Economics.

November 1, 2023

Breaking Barriers: Claudia Goldin ’67, Nobel Prize Laureate in Economics, Discusses Time at Cornell, Career

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Prof. Claudia Goldin ’67, who has taught economics at Harvard for more than three decades, was honored with the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences just weeks ago, cementing her place in history as the first woman to win the award individually. She has turned down most requests for media appearances and speaking engagements since but agreed to an interview with The Sun.

Goldin is the first woman to have been offered tenure in the economics departments at Princeton, the University of Pennsylvania and Harvard. Her groundbreaking work examining wage and labor market inequality has informed women’s rights movements across the globe.

In an exclusive phone interview with The Sun on Thursday, Oct. 26, Goldin discussed her time at Cornell, the power of investigative journalism and whether more women now going to college than men could help bridge the gender wage gap. 

Segments of this interview have been edited and condensed for clarity.

Interview Transcript:

Levin: Can you tell me about how your undergraduate years at Cornell influenced who you are today and what your reasons were for picking economics as your area of study?

Goldin: So, I went to Cornell to study bacteriology, and I came to Cornell very excited about doing that. But I soon realized that I didn’t know a lot of things. I didn’t know the field of political science. I had no idea about economics. I wasn’t very informed about literature. And history, you know, it was something that I knew a bit about, but not enough. And so I switched from bacteriology to I didn’t know exactly what. And then I took a course with Alfred Kahn, who was a faculty member for many, many years at Cornell — a beloved faculty member. And he was very passionate about the subject of economics and industrial organization and regulation in particular. And he’s a fascinating person. He was the head of the Civil Aeronautics Board, and he deregulated the airlines. He was amazing. And so he really made me realize that I can do something and I could be an economist. 

Levin: And what are some other formative memories that you have? What were some other classes, perhaps even outside of economics, that you took that really impacted who you are today? 

Goldin: Walter LaFeber, who was a member of the faculty until not that long ago, gave courses in history and in particular in American foreign policy. And his courses were large. And I would sit in this class, and there must have been like 250 people in the class. And his delivery was so personal that I always felt that he was speaking only to me. So he was a real influence on me. 

Levin: How do you think Kahn and LaFeber’s examples influenced how you teach your classes today?

Goldin: Oh, that’s a very, very good point. In some sense, I teach my classes as they did in that I feel passionate about the subject as well, and I take a real interest in my students as they always did. And I try to deliver a class in an organized way and prepare in advance. They were always extremely prepared, but LaFeber in particular had just a meticulous preparation. 

Levin: Alright, now I want to get to some questions specifically about your research into the gender wage gap. At Cornell and beyond, more women are now going to college than men. How do you think that will impact the gender wage gap going forward? 

Goldin: Sure. I mean, the gender wage gap is complicated. I mean, rather than just saying the gender wage gap, we can say: What about the distribution of earnings in the economy? The gender wage gap, the way we measure it, is too simplistic. We measure it as a single number, and the single number is produced in a very particular way. It’s produced using data on annual earnings. It takes a group of men and a group of women. In that group, it takes only those who work full time, full year. It takes the earnings of the median woman and the median man and takes that ratio. And that’s it. Isn’t that interesting? We have all of this data and we boil it down to a single number. In fact, the real issue is that if I did that for a man and a woman who just graduated from Cornell and who were both working, that number would be pretty high. In other words, it would be pretty close to one. Their earnings would be very similar. And then if I looked at them ten years later and 15 years later, that number would be smaller and smaller. So in fact, what we really want is a full distribution of that number over people’s life cycle. That didn’t really answer your question, because you said: What if we had a lot more women who are college graduates who major in subjects that are demanded in the economy relative to what they had been doing ten, 20, 30, 40 years ago. That is clearly something that serves to narrow the gap. And we have seen that over time. So let’s leave it at that. 

Levin: How much farther do we need to go to achieve full equality both in the workplace and in society at large? And what are some steps that we can take to do that? 

Goldin: There’s a very big reason why there is a gap. There’s a gap because there’s a gap in what women and men do within their own homes. And as long as that gap persists and as long as the world of work is sort of a greedy world and rewards long hours and weekend work and evening work and vacation work and putting out a lot of effort work, then those who are the caregivers are going to be earning less than those who are less the caregivers. It’s really as simple as that. 

Levin: But aren’t gender roles radically shifting today? And don’t you think that can have a very important impact?

Goldin: I would hope so.

Levin: Now, I wanted to ask what your advice is to young women who are embarking on careers in historically male-dominated fields, who are going to Cornell, following their dreams and trying to make the world a better place?

Goldin: I would say that my advice to everyone is, number one, follow your passions and keep on following them. And number two, what I would say to a woman in particular is find a spouse, a partner, who wants what you want. 

Levin: With the groundbreaking research that you’ve done into inequality in the distribution of earnings, what more research needs to be done as time goes on? 

Goldin: I think there’s always questions about inequalities and there are always questions about — I spoke about why the gender earnings gap exists, having to do with the world of work and the world at home. But there are still issues, and I’m not dismissing issues having to do with stereotyping and bias and the importance of transparency of pay and many of the other issues that have been emphasized by others who have examined this problem. So there is that issue. There are issues about, you know, the monopsony power of certain firms. And of course, there is also the fact that there are other countries and other places in which social norms and traditions are more strongly felt. I mean, so if we go to India, we will see a very different world. And if we go to the Middle East — we go to many countries in the Middle East, we will see labor force participation rates of women that are extremely low. And so many issues having to do with gender are even magnified there writ large in other countries. Finally, our own country has some of the most feeble social policies with regard to families in the US, with regard to women in particular. So there is that whole set of issues as well. 

Levin: One thing I think that’s particularly inspirational about your work is your emphasis on getting to the bottom of the facts and being a detective as you’ve sometimes called yourself. Are you worried that we’re entering a time when the truth is starting to have diminishing value in our discourse?

Goldin: I would hope not. That’s where I would leave it.

Levin: At Cornell and beyond, there’s a lot of disinformation going around about a lot of social issues, whether that’s climate science or the gender pay gap. What would you say to people who are getting their information from disreputable sources? And what is your personal advice on getting to the facts and learning?

Goldin: I think we have to support good investigative journalism. I think that it is absolutely crucial that what we researchers do is then put out into the public eye by good journalists and good journalists who themselves do good detective work. You know, Robert Caro, who’s written phenomenal books on The Power Broker, his books on Lyndon Johnson. He began at Newsday as an investigative journalist, and he is someone who writes to dig up. I mean, he works in archives. He works with primary source materials. There is no substitute for that type of work. And that’s the type of work that we have to support.

Levin: To round off this interview, I’d like to ask: Is there any message that you have to the Cornell community, your alma mater, in general?

Goldin: Cornell occupies a very, very special place in my life, but also in the lives of many women. Cornell was coeducational from the very, very beginning, in some hilarious manner. Although it was coed, there weren’t any women’s dorms at first. And then Sage gave money to build a women’s dorm. And so Cornell was really coeducational and had women from just about the very, very start and was, you know, a superior institution that has both the private and the public sector. Cornell, to me, is just about everything, tucked away in the Shangri-La of the hills. I mean, for me, a kid from the Bronx, I went to Cornell and I never wanted to leave. 

Levin: I just wanted to say, Dr. Goldin, that I can speak on behalf of the entire Cornell community in congratulating you on your recent Nobel Prize win. And I just wanted to thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me today. 

Goldin: Well, it was really, really great talking to you and thinking back on my wonderful years at Cornell.

Gabriel Levin is a second-year student in the College of Arts & Sciences and an Opinion columnist. He can be reached at [email protected].