25 July 2022

Career and Family

Women’s Century‑Long Journey toward Equity

Claudia Goldin
2021, Princeton University Press, 344 pages,
ISBN 9780691201788

Reviewer: Melissa Davies, Chief Economist, Redburn

This book is a must-read, not only for women navigating the challenges of developing a career while having children, but also for those that support them and, crucially, those that manage them. It is a fascinating tour through 20th century social history and five generations of college-educated women, who initially had to choose between a career and family but have ultimately been able to combine the two, narrowing the gender pay gap along the way. It highlights the importance of developments such as widespread access to contraception in allowing women to participate in the workforce – a particularly sobering point in the light of the US Supreme Court overturning Roe vs Wade and its potential future implications.

But although the gender pay gap has narrowed sharply over time, it still persists to a greater or lesser degree across industries. It is Goldin’s thesis that a relatively small proportion of that gender pay gap can be explained by occupational segregation and outright pay discrimination, and that the structure of work within occupations is an under-appreciated driver of the gender pay gap.

‘Greedy jobs’ with long inflexible hours and ‘on-call in the office’ cultures are particularly detrimental to gender equality because they undermine couple equity – children, of course, need time and two parents cannot both pursue ‘greedy job’ careers unless they are willing to fully out-source childcare. More generally, one parent (historically usually the woman, but of course the argument applies just as equally to both parents regardless of gender) often chooses to be ‘on-call’ at home, limiting their career progression or ability to work in certain sectors. This is why the gender pay gap tends to widen once women reach their mid-30s, a time when ‘up or out’ industries such as consulting or law offer partnerships and firm equity to high performers.

But the argument Goldin makes is more nuanced than just ‘greedy jobs are bad for gender equality’. She in fact argues that high-skilled jobs where employees are substitutable create a better environment for fostering couple equity and therefore gender equality. She gives the example of pharmacists in the US, where the impact of corporates buying out and consolidating local businesses has allowed employees to work regular hours or defined ‘out of hours’ shifts. It has also established a linear relationship between hours and pay, so that pharmacists are able to work part-time without a disproportionate decline in remuneration.

By contrast, ‘greedy jobs’ have a rising function between wages and hours – the more hours worked, the more hourly pay increases, severely crimping the ability of those with responsibilities at home from progressing. Pharmacy is not the only industry Goldin cites with this characteristic, with areas of medicine such as paediatrics exhibiting a notable degree of part-time work for both male and female doctors. Veterinarians and tech engineers also benefit from a high element of substitutability between skilled employees.

The pandemic has had both positive and negative effects on women in the workplace – encouraging flexibility but also bringing the tension between family and career responsibilities into sharp relief as childcare facilities were closed down. The high cost of childcare and the slow recovery of that sector has been one major headwind to the normalisation of the US labour market after the pandemic and a contributing factor to currently inflationary pressures.

Goldin cites survey evidence that parents today spend more time with their children than in the past, and want to do spend even more. There is appetite from both male and female parents to have stronger couple equity, which will help to achieve between gender equality in the workplace. Employers who are attuned to this trend may have greater success in retaining a highly trained and productive workforce, and there are steps that can be taken in any industry to enhance ‘substitutability’ between roles. This could provide a route to improving employee retention, increasing labour force participation and boosting productivity, while helping to further narrow the gender pay gap.