“Equitable Growth in Conversation” is a recurring series where we talk with economists and other social scientists to help us better understand whether and how economic inequality affects economic growth and stability.

In this installment, Equitable Growth’s Executive Director and Chief Economist Heather Boushey talks with economist Claudia Goldin about the gender wage gap and some of its implications. Read their conversation below.


Heather Boushey: I want to focus on your work on the gender wage gap. Lots of us have been thinking about this for a long time and noticed that you have gotten a lot of attention in the press for your recent research on this, so I wanted to ask you some questions teasing out both what it is and what some of the implications are.

In your paper, “A Grand Gender Convergence: Its Last Chapter“—and I love the title of that—you argue that the gender wage gap cannot be explained by differences in productivity between men and women. Instead, when we look at occupations, we see that there is a price paid for flexibility in the workplace. And given what people are thinking about in terms of policy, that seemed like a really good place to start our conversation today. Can you tell me a little bit more about this result?

Claudia Goldin: So the key finding is that there is a gender wage gap. But the question is why? We know from lots of people’s work that we used to be able to squeeze a lot of the gap away due to differences in education—differences in your college major, whether you went to college or not, whether you have a Ph.D., an M.D., whatever. We were also able to squeeze a lot away on the basis of whether you had continuous work experience or not.

Today, we are not able to squeeze much away. In fact, women on average have more education than men. The quantities [of women with college degrees] are higher, and even the qualities [of degrees] aren’t that much different anymore. And the extent of past labor force participation is pretty high. Lifecycle labor force participation for women is very, very high. So we can’t squeeze that much away anymore.

What’s also really striking is that, given lots of factors such as an individual’s education level, many occupations have very large gender gaps and some occupations have very small gender gaps. Looking at occupations at the higher part of the income spectrum, which is also the higher part of the education spectrum — so occupations where about 50 or 60 percent of all college graduates are—we see that the biggest gaps are in occupations in the corporate and finance field, in law, and in health occupations that have high amounts of self-employment. And the smallest gaps are found in occupations in technology, in science, and in lots of the health occupations where there is a very low level of self-employment.

That’s sort of a striking finding.

Then when we dig deeper and look at particular occupations—in law, for example, and in the corporate and finance field—we see a couple of things. We see that differences in hours have very high penalties even on a per hour basis. Differences in short amounts of time off have very high penalties, unlike in other fields. And many of the differences occur at the event of or just after the event of first birth. So there is something that looks like women disproportionately, relative to men, are doing something different after they have kids.

When we look at men and women in the finance and corporate fields who haven’t taken any time off and among the women who don’t have kids, we find that the differences are really tiny. So those are the differences that are coming about, not surprisingly, from the fact that women are valuing predictability, and flexibility, and many other aspects of the job that many men are not valuing.

So, looking at data for the United States, we find that this change from being an employee, a worker, and a professional, to being an employee, a worker, a professional, and a parent has a disproportionate impact on women.

Now one might say, isn’t that because the United States has really lousy coverage in terms of parental leave policy, and in terms of subsidized daycare? Well, there are two very interesting papers, one for Sweden and one for Denmark. Both countries have policies that are just about the best in the world, and these studies, using these extraordinary cradle-to-grave data that they have, look at the widening in the — what men are getting versus women is occurring at — they can do an event study at that [having a child].

And women are moving into occupations that have more flexibility, but they are working fewer hours and getting less per hour. And the same sorts of things are going on even in countries that have incredibly good parental leave policies, subsidized daycare, schools that appear to us to be better, and what we think of as social norms that are better.

Boushey: One of the things that you found in your research that you haven’t mentioned yet is this idea that some workers are more substitutable—this idea that the industries with a high level of self-employment play some role in the gender pay gap. Could you explain that a little bit?

Goldin: Well, it would be very nice for us to go to each one of these occupations and take part in each one of these occupations and learn something about them. We can’t do that so instead we use the O*NET database, which gives us a lot of information about what goes on in these occupations.

And in O*NET, there are certain characteristics of the occupations that seem to map very nicely into aspects that would appear to be important, such as how predictable the job is, what the time demands are, whether you have to deal with clients, or whether work relationships are important.

And much of that is related to the issue about whether if an individual wants to leave work at 11 o’clock in the morning but do the same task at 11 o’clock at night, whether that’s severely penalized. That would be penalized if the individual can’t easily hand off work to someone else if it is needed at 11 a.m. That would be important if the fidelity of the information would be altered, if the client would feel that the individual wasn’t a very good substitute, and so on.

So using this information from O*NET, I find that the occupations that have the largest gender gaps are those that have the least predictability and the greatest time demands. And the occupations that have the smallest gender gaps are on the other side. It’s not necessarily causal, but it’s pretty good evidence that there is something going on.

And then I drill down deeper into particular occupations, such as the work that I have done on MBAs in the corporate and finance sector, and the longitudinal information that exists on lawyers. And finally, there’s a very interesting occupation that went through tremendous change during the 20th century and into the 21st century, and that’s pharmacy.

Pharmacists used to own their own businesses by and large, and they hired other pharmacists to work with them, often part-time. Many of these part-time workers were women, but there were few women who were owners. Well, ownership involves lots of responsibility, and as the owner, you are the residual claimant [the person with the last claim to the firm’s assets]. So in 1970 or so, women got about 66 cents on the male dollar in terms of pharmacy. Today, women working full-time full-year get 92 cents on the male dollar, uncorrected for any other differences and a lot more adding other relevant factors.

There are three things going on here. One is that there is no longer a lot of self-employment. Pharmacists by and large are not working for independent pharmacies anymore. They are working for big chains, national chains, regional chains, world chains. So the residual claimant now is the owner of the stock. There is professional management, and then there are just people who work there who are pharmacists.

The second thing is that there is very good use of IT. Every pharmacist now knows all the prescriptions that you have under your health plan, not just the ones that were filled in that pharmacy. And the third thing is that the drugs themselves are highly standardized by and large, so it isn’t that you are very attached to a particular pharmacist because they fill your prescriptions better or because they know you better. Pharmacists are highly paid professionals, but they are very good substitutes for each other.

Boushey: I’m glad you brought that study up, because I was going to ask you about it. My great uncle was a pharmacist, so I also just find it personally a fascinating example.

If you look at O*NET and the kinds of things that you are measuring, it seems like there are some cases where it seems very logical—especially in the case of pharmacists—that the substitutability is related to the profitability of the firm. It seems like a real strong business case.

Have you found in your research examples where perhaps not the substitutability but the job requirements around predictability or schedules may be more about keeping some workers out than they are about what’s good for the firm?

Goldin: Well, I’m all ears. (Laughter.)

Boushey: Yeah, I don’t know that I have answers there. I just think it begs the question. And I don’t know if you have thought about how to discern that difference in terms of —

Goldin: It’s that firms are leaving very large amounts of money on the ground. And so, if they are able to do that, they are able to pay for their taste for discrimination, then they can [discriminate]. And so that’s what one would look for, whether there are invaders standing at the gates. And if there aren’t, then they can do that and get away with it.

But the question is, where are the invaders that should be standing at the gates?

Boushey: And if part of what you have found is that a lot of this happens right after a child, that’s an invader of a different kind, perhaps.

Goldin: What’s interesting in the case of the MBAs is that it’s not right after the kid. It’s like two years later.

Babies are easier to take care of than 2-year-olds, and so it’s not that the firm then says, “Aha, we have one of those that has kids. We’ll just make certain that she doesn’t get the clients.” And one hears a lot of those stories, and those are the ones that the HR people are always talking about and making certain that people in their firm don’t do that—don’t have sexist paternalism, as it’s called.

But that doesn’t seem to be what is going on. I’m not doubting that there isn’t some of that, but what seems to be going on is that the individual tries and tries—in our data at least, in the Chicago Booth [School of Business] data—and eventually it’s just too much. There are too many demands, so they decide to scale back somewhat.

Boushey: Then I guess there are two questions. It sounds like it is that scaling back that causes the gender pay gap, right?. And what can we do about it?

Goldin: If a firm somehow believes, or it’s the case that right now, its production function is such that working 80 hours a week is worth a lot more than having two workers work 40 hours a week, then that produces non-linearities in pay and it leads to exactly what we are seeing. End of story.

Boushey: And on the policy side, it sounds like there isn’t a lot of incentive from the firm’s side to fix that

Goldin: No, there’s a lot of incentive on the firm’s side. If I’m paying someone more than twice as much to work 80 hours a week than I’m paying two people to work 80 hours a week, then I should think about ways of reducing my costs.

And if I am working people 80 hours a week and that leads people with skills, very expensive skills, to leave, then I should want to do something to keep them there and to figure out how to make certain that they aren’t working 80 hours a week.

I often hear how the CEO of a company has said, “We really want to keep our talent—women as well as men who don’t want to work 80 hours a week, who don’t want the pressure of being called up when they are at a soccer game with their kids, on a Sunday or a Saturday or an evening, or whatever.” The CEO will set down a policy to ensure that doesn’t happen, but then there are a lot of managers who don’t hear that or who claim they don’t hear that. So lots of firms hire HR people to go around and make certain that this is policed.

And these issues are present even in the military. Some time ago at a conference on workplace flexibility, Adm. Mike Mullen, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, essentially said “I’m having trouble doing it, and I’m the head of the entire military.”

So there are principal-agent problems that firms would like to rein in. So they are losing money.

Boushey: Yeah. Well, the federal government implemented a “right to request” policy in one of the agencies—I believe it was OPM, the Office of Personnel Management. I talked to them when they were starting to implement that and the folks we were talking to were super excited, and then they told me, “Oh, yeah, we had some problems with middle management actually implementing it.” And then they stopped the experimenting and I never heard about it again.

Goldin: Yeah.

Boushey: And I think it’s a real challenge how firms are making that connection between that profit motive that the big guys are thinking about and what’s actually happening.

Goldin: Right. But there are lots of firms that have what they call work-life balance, or work-family balance; where, if you work at 11 at night versus 11 in the morning, that’s perfectly fine with them.

I was talking with a very senior partner at a well-known consulting firm once and I asked, “Well, what do you do when clients [call people up at 11 p.m.]?” And she said, “I call up the clients and I say, I have staff and they are not your slaves.” Well. (Laughter.)

Boushey: Good for her.

Goldin: Good for her, and right. But let’s just say that there are cases in which we don’t want someone to have a perfect substitute. I do not want my president, for example, to turn around and say, “oh, by the way, I really don’t like this unpredictability business. You know? That little red button on the phone—every now and again, I say, you know, I’m really not here right now.” (Laughter.)

Because there are cases in which that person better be on 24/7 and that’s it. And we know that in the world of work, those people get higher pay—or, in the case of our president, just get better ratings.

So there are going to be cases in which individuals who are willing to work long hours, work unpredictable hours, be on call, whatever we want to call it, are going to get more. And they are not going to be substitutable. And information is not going to flow perfectly, with total high fidelity.

The question is, what fraction of the occupations in the economy are like that? And I think you and I would agree that the fraction is probably a lot lower than appears to be the case right now.

Boushey: So what should folks who are thinking about policy do about this? Is there a role for us, or is this just a business case? Do they all have to learn this lesson on their own, or is there something policymakers can do?

Goldin: Yeah, we have a policy. It’s called public schools. We’ve had it for a very, very long time. We have public schools that get out nationwide at about 2:30 or 3:00, that end sometime in June, that begin school at 5 years old or 6 years old. None of that was ever discussed as being the optimal way to run schools.

It is suboptimal with respect to individuals who have kids, because kids are not one- or two-year capital goods. Family leave policy is not the only thing that’s going to help families with kids, because the kids live, I hope, for many, many years after they are 2 years old. That’s the policy.

Boushey: I love it. That’s a fantastic way to end this interview, and something I will take with me in my travels here in Washington. Thank you so much, Claudia.

Goldin: Thank you.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.