In her 2021 book, Career & Family: Women’s Century-Long Journey Toward Equity, economist Claudia Goldin, winner of the Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel 2023, lays out a brief history of college-educated women in the United States.
Going back to women who attended college beginning in the 1900s, she examines how women’s aspirations and circumstances have changed over time. And while the book focuses on American women, in an increasingly globalised world many of her observations resonate elsewhere too — such as “the problem with no name”.
Despite taking huge strides in education and employment, women continue to feel short changed when they compare their careers with those of their husbands and male colleagues. The “problem”, Goldin says, can be termed as sex discrimination, gender bias, glass ceiling, and so on. But even if these issues go away, it will not solve the problem itself.
The system at fault
This is how Goldin frames the problem: “The good news? It isn’t you; it is the system. The bad news: it isn’t you; it is the system.” How this system, which includes larger economic, political, and social forces, operates, and how women have navigated it to aspire for a career and family, is what the book explains.
The book divides women who graduated from college into five categories from the 1900s through the 1990s, and traces, using data from government and other sources, how their aspirations changed over time — from having to choose between a career and family, having to sacrifice, in some way, one or the other, and finally aspiring for both in equal measure.
These shifts came due to factors such as laws that banned women and married women from working, and the strengthening of such laws amid a scarcity of jobs during the Great Depression. These laws eventually changed as the demand for jobs rose after a significant increase in births after World War II in the ‘Baby Boom’ era.
The introduction of the birth control pill by the Federal Drug Administration in 1960 allowed women to delay childbirth and marriage. This translated into greater enrolment in post-graduate courses and aspirations for ‘careers’ — long-term professional endeavours with growth prospects — rather than only ‘jobs’ that just paid the bills.
The feminist movement of the 1960s and 1970s led to a “Quiet Revolution” as more and more women entered the workforce for longer periods to pursue careers, determined to build on what the women before them had accomplished. Goldin estimates that 20-25% of the economic growth since 1960 has occurred because of reduced barriers to the employment, training, and education of women and minorities in the US.
The fact that women’s career goals today are impacted by their taking breaks to have and care for children is “the tug between care and work”, Goldin says.
Problem of ‘greedy jobs’
This tug, or sense of professional unfulfillment, relates to the ‘pay gap’ — the difference between the average earnings of women and men. Previously, it was thought to be largely due to the differences in the genders’ fields of study and occupational choices.
But beyond those choices and discrimination based solely on gender or race, the gap is dynamic. Even in the same jobs and with the same qualifications, it widens as a man and a woman age, get married, and have children.
The root of the problem is “greedy work”, Goldin says. These are careers that require significant time and attention from workers and are more likely to reward those who are available at all times — think doctors, lawyers, and senior corporate executives.
The value of greedy jobs has greatly increased with rising income inequality, which has soared since the early 1980s. This means that either the man or the woman must be employed in a “greedy job” to have a substantial family income.
But with the need for children and eldercare, at least one partner has to be more present at home. “And when couple equity is thrown out the window, gender equality generally goes with it, except among same-sex unions,” Goldin writes.
Traditionally, men have been able to have a family and “step up” in terms of careers because women “step back” from their careers for the family. “Both are deprived: men forgo time with family; women forgo career,” she writes.
Goldin terms the existing work and care structures as “relics of a past when only men had both careers and families”. To solve modern problems, these structures must be changed.
Part of the solution is letting rewarding, well-paying work become more “flexible” – in terms of hours and allowing for time-offs – and having companies maintain efficiency. She points to some fields in the US where this has happened to some extent, such as veterinary medicine. Remote work introduced during the pandemic could also be an example, she writes.
A crucial part of the equation is men, who need to support their male colleagues who are on parental leave, vote for public policies that subsidise childcare, and get their firms to change their “greedy ways” by letting them know that their families are worth even more than their jobs. Goldin ultimately advocates for reimagining work and care so that men and women can have it all – fulfilling careers and fulfilling family lives.
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