Fifteen Questions: Claudia D. Goldin on the Nobel Prize, Women in Economics, and the Barbie Movie

Henry Lee Professor of Economics Claudia D. Goldin speaks with Fifteen Minutes about her Nobel Prize, gender gaps in economics, and the Barbie movie.


Claudia Goldin is the 2023 Nobel Laureate in Economics and the Henry Lee Professor of Economics. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

FM: You just got back from the Nobel Prize ceremony about a month ago. Could you describe that experience?

It was a combination of being exhilarating, exhausting, and at the same time, there was a certain amount of humor that I always find in everything in life. As I said, it was a tremendous amount: Every second of my day for eight days was taken up.

FM: What was the highlight from the week?

Let me just back up a bit: on October 9, when I was called at 4:30 in the morning, and told that I had 90 minutes to prepare for a press conference. Then, I had this huge amount of emails and calls. I learned something that stayed with me and was there in Stockholm as well, which is that this wasn’t just my prize. This was a prize that was felt deeply by a very large fraction of the world’s population, that many women felt “I am heard, I understood.” People doing work on women and gender, people doing work and economic history felt “My work is validated; findings that I have put out are vindicated. I am emboldened.” And that stayed.

When I was in Stockholm, I spoke more times than the other laureates. I had seven different talks to give — some long and some were extremely short. For each one of them, I felt this sense of relief, a sense that a group of people were breathing out, that they were saying, “I have been heard.”

FM: Something I find fascinating about your career path is your initial interest in microbiology and archaeology. And could you talk a little bit about what caused you to kind of move away from the life sciences and into economics?

I came from a family of a mother and a father who, I got the sense from them that being a scientist was the most important thing that you could do. At some point in junior high school, I read Paul de Kruif’s book “Microbe Hunters.” The notion of being a detective and figuring out what causes various diseases was very exciting to me, but that was a moment of enormous change in the field of microbiology. As the findings of Crick and Watson are getting absorbed and expanded, I don’t think that the programs in microbiology and bacteriology in many universities were up to the task.

When I got to Cornell, I had already taken an undergraduate course in bacteriology when I was a junior in high school during the summer. I felt that I knew a tremendous amount and that I could just whiz through. And no one ever explained to me that in fact, I didn’t know a lot. At the same time, I also realized that I didn’t know enough literature, and I didn’t know enough philosophy, and I didn’t know enough political theory. And I didn’t even know what economics was. And so at some point, you realize “I have four years. The world of knowledge is huge. I have to learn something.”

FM: And could you talk about your first venture into economics?

I took a course from Fred Khan. And that wasn’t the first economics course I took, I must have taken some boring intro course, in which someone had a graph and on one side was liquor on the other side was fish or something unimportant to me. Somehow, these courses in economics, I felt that they were speaking to me, but most importantly, it was the person. Alfred Kahn, otherwise known as Fred Kahn, was an amazing teacher. He was someone who felt strongly about conveying knowledge. He would write on the blackboard, and if the blackboard got full, he would actually go on the floor and draw it in the chalk that was on the floor. He was also somewhat theatrical. He was in Gilbert and Sullivan productions, but most of it was that he felt very strongly about the subject that he worked in, which was the economics of regulation. I did a senior thesis on the regulation of communication satellites, so very different from stuff I work on now.

FM: Could you speak to the value that a historical perspective on economics brings that we can’t get from economics alone?

History is always with us; every single person has a history. All we have to do is think about the economy today and taking a slice of the population. There are people who are 2 years old, and there are people who are 80-years-old. Those people themselves have a history. And so, we’re never separated from their history, but at the same time, the history is with us in terms of institutions. The question is not whether we should do history, but how far back should we go? If we think about issues today, it’s almost as if we’re taking a bolt of cloth, and unfurling it. And the question just is how far back do we go to make what happens today meaningful?

FM: One big theme behind your approach to economic research is being a detective. How has that mindset shaped your career and research?

A really good detective never says, “Oh, I don’t know where to find the answer.” A really good detective always says, “Let me think hard about how to find the answer.” I think that that’s always been my sense, that if the question is important enough, I will use everything I have at my hands to answer the question. And sometimes the detective can’t figure it out. We know that there are a lot of cases that are every now and then we read in the newspaper that a case has been solved that’s been sitting there for eons unsolved. And so sometimes there are ways of solving problems that you don’t have the ability to do. For example, today, there are lots of economic historians doing record linkage that I was doing by hand and couldn’t possibly do, as well as what we’re doing now with high speed computers, large amounts of data, and AI.

FM: At Harvard, you were the first woman to be offered and to get a tenure position in the economics department. Over the course of 35 years since, how has your experience being a woman in academia changed over time?

The big changes are pretty clear: When I was a graduate student, I was in exactly the same cohort as Janet Yellen, who was a graduate student at Yale while I was a graduate student in Chicago. Her first position as an assistant professor was here in this department. I got to know Janet when I was visiting Harvard in 1975. For both of us, our classes were between 5 and 10 percent female. Now classes are more like 35, 40 percent. The fact that I was the first woman to be offered a tenured position in this department, the fact that I’m the first woman who got the Nobel in Economics by herself, all it means is that that’s the first. There’s going to be a second, and a third, and a fourth, and a fifth pretty soon. I can see it.

FM: And that must have an impact on bringing diverse perspectives into the field of economics. How does that inform your research?

You step on something very important, which is that women in various fields — let’s take economics — are into different parts of the field than men do. So women are disproportionately in economics in fields that are more about people. So they’re less in finance, less than econometrics, and more in health and population and labor. If that’s the case, then if we had not had very many women in the field, that meant that we didn’t have very many economists in this part of the field. Diversity means that we add to a field different perspectives.

FM: You describe gender equity as one of the greatest advances during the 20th century. Are you optimistic about the way progress is moving forward today, especially in light of recent attacks on women, such as the bans on abortion?

There’s a large subject that you’re including here. One has to do with rights. One has to do with laws, one has to do with federalism, one has to do with careers and the economy. And I don’t think that they’re all in the same area. We can have advances in one and feel that there’s something dragging us down in the other. A very, very good example of this is the birth control pill. The birth control pill was a phenomenal advance for women. However, there were a set of institutions that were barring the use of the pill by certain groups of women. So on one hand, you have enormous advances. On the other hand, you can have barriers and obstacles. Then these obstacles and barriers somehow disappear one by one, and the advances can seep through society and have a much greater effect.

FM: Your work highlighted the “quiet revolution” as an important time in the 20th century that impacted female participation in the workforce. Where do you see the next inflection point in gender dynamics in the workforce?

Where I hope that there’s a switch now is less in what is happening to women and what is happening to men. So I would hope, and we do see, that many men and young women are saying, “I want to have a career, but I also want to have my own time.” And so therefore, it’s not simply a career. It’s a career and a family. So to the extent that we’re talking about different sex couples, I am hoping that in these different sex couples, there’s more sharing, which is what I think the Barbie movie was all about.

FM: Could you elaborate on that?

The Barbie movie was about all these Barbies who seem to be at the top of their game. They were presidents, they were on the Supreme Court, they had Nobel Prizes. They had lots of things but they weren’t really living in a real world. They weren’t really happy. And the Kens were, you know, “There’s no Ken without Barbie,” which is the famous line from the movie.

And then the Kens discovered the patriarchy and bring to the Barbie world the terrible patriarchy and the fact that they have a monopoly on violence. Neither one of those worlds is going to work. So then Barbie escapes and goes to the real world and decides to become a real woman. The only way in which the Barbies are going to accomplish anything and be real people with the Kens, and the only way the Kens are going to be real people, is if they work together.

FM: Do you have a favorite song from Barbie?

I was thinking about that because several were nominated for the Oscar. Of course, Billie Eilish’s song is, I think, the best, but I still like the Ken song. And of course, the Dua Lipa song, the party song, is phenomenal. They’re great songs.

FM: You describe how your grandest ideas come from teaching undergraduate and graduate classes. Could you describe one of these moments?

The most important was that when I first came to Harvard, that was 33 years ago, I was told that I could teach any course I wanted to teach. I just published “Understanding the Gender Gap.” And I thought, “Well, I know a lot about this, I’ll teach this class.” And I started teaching it. I realized that whenever you start teaching something, you realize there are things you didn’t know. That’s the beginning of “Career and Family” because I didn’t really understand what happened to college women across a century. So that’s what I did. I put together data and presented it to the class, and that was the beginning of that book.

FM: Your Golden Retriever, Pika, has a knack for competitive sniffing and obedience competitions. What is training a dog for these competitions like?

You begin simply by training them the same way you train children: They have to learn their name, they have to understand commands. You begin with the simple things just like with children, and then he went to school. And I had a trainer out in Franklin, because you need very, very large areas; you need buildings that are large and on land that isn’t expensive. And so the training place that I went to was in Franklin, Mass. Every other week, I would go out there and train with Esther Zimmerman. And Esther has mentored me with everything I know about dogs.

FM: What are you looking forward to next?

Well, I am looking forward to sitting down next week and redoing my two courses that I’m giving. We have to redo part of the syllabus; we don’t want it to be old. We want to add things that are new. You get more excited about things yourself when they’re new. I want to get back to working on “Why Women Won.” I haven’t looked at that in a long time, so I want to do that. And a new book. I just, in fact, got a new book from Amazon on the history of the National Organization for Women, so I want to listen to that.

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