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Career and Family

Women’s Century-Long Journey Toward Equality


Claudia Goldin


Princeton: University Press, 2021

Hardcover. xii +325 p. ISBN‎ 978-0691201788. $27.95/£22


Reviewed by Pat Thane

Birkbeck College London





Claudia Goldin is an economist at Harvard – the first woman to be tenured there in economics, in the 1990s. Her book is about the career and family lives since the early 20th century of women graduates in the USA, with occasional references to other American women. She draws on many years’ research around the topic, building upon twenty articles written jointly or alone since 1990, based mainly upon quantitative and survey evidence. She describes a story that is well-known, or suspected, in outline but she gives it substance with rich detail, though somewhat repetitive writing.

The book was written during the Covid pandemic and culminates there.  It focusses upon the continuous struggle of women to balance family and work lives and its impact upon their careers, a struggle that has changed but not been eliminated over time. Even the best qualified women are still likely to have poorer earnings and promotions than equivalent men whether they have children or not. The conventional explanations for this blame discrimination and harassment in the workplace or blame women for not competing or negotiating aggressively enough. Goldin believes that the roots of this problem are long and more complex. The workforce remains deeply gendered and predominantly female occupations, such as nursing, despite improvements, continue to be worse paid and have lower status than historically male occupations, including doctors. And societal norms about the gender division of parental and domestic responsibilities have changed very little.

As Goldin describes, a century ago, women were a small minority of US graduates, excluded from some elite universities. Now they are a majority, enter all universities and outperform men; many take graduate degrees and enter professional careers. Until the 1940s, combining career and family was rarely a problem because married women were barred from working in most professions, known as the ‘marriage bar’. This became stricter in the Depression of the 1930s, to protect male jobs, then dwindled due to wartime and post-war labour shortages, but it was replaced by dismissal following pregnancy and the exclusion of young mothers due not to explicit rules but to social conventions. Also ‘nepotism’ rules, barring married women from working in the same department or institution as their husbands, lasted at least to the 1950s in universities among other workplaces.

Now women have greater control of their fertility, especially since the emergence of the birth pill in the 1960s, and they marry and start families at later ages, when they are established in their careers. But mothers still experience less pay and promotion than fathers with similar qualifications. They often start their careers on similar pay but the gap widens over time, mainly because high status work generally demands long, often unpredictable, hours – ‘greedy work’ Goldin calls it – when mothers need time for family responsibilities. This problem has grown since the 1980s when top pay began to soar compared with the rest, especially in areas particularly hard for women to enter, notably finance. This would cause less conflict if men’s lives had changed as much as women’s and society expected them to take a full share of family tasks, but they have not. Men’s careers continue to take priority and women suffer from changing jobs as their husbands move.

To explore change over time Goldin divides women graduates into five groups, divided by generations with distinctive experiences, though with continuities between them: Group 1 graduated 1900s-1910s; 2, 1920s-30s; 3, 1950s-mid-60s; 4, mid-1960s-1970s; 5, 1980s-90s. She ascribes the changes to developments in society and the economy including bringing about growing numbers of female graduates: just c. 3% of women of college age in 1900, by 1990 almost 50%, outnumbering men. The backgrounds of women students changed less than the numbers: overwhelmingly white and better-off. Women of colour have always faced greater barriers than white women. Men’s expectations of their wives changed. They became increasingly willing and able to marry graduates until by the 1980s it became normal

Group 1 faced the ‘marriage bar’, were generally prohibited from taking advanced degrees, some leading law, business and medical schools were closed to them and there were strong family and community norms against their working after marriage. They had to choose between career and marriage. One-third never married, often from choice to escape patriarchal control and some had successful careers. Most worked at some time, mainly as teachers, the job expected of educated women and often their only option.  50% had no children; those who did rarely worked. The mothers with the most successful careers were writers and journalists, like Nobel Prize winner Pearl Buck. Their work was flexible, under their control, with no marriage or nepotism bars.

Most in Group 2 worked then became mothers. More ambitious for careers as more opened up in the 1920s following the expansion of business and public services and the gradual opening of other professions to women, but, still required to abandon work on marriage, most married late then had children. The most successful professionally did not marry or married without children.

Group 3 graduated after World War 2 and, like most of their generation, married young. Marriage rates rose and women gave birth younger than before amid the ‘baby-boom’. Between 1950 and the early 1970s marriage ages were lower than at any other time in US history, for reasons unknown to Goldin. She believes that the decline was ‘greater and more extensive than in other post-World War 2 nations’. In fact, the UK experienced an almost identical pattern of falling ages at marriage and first birth, a baby-boom and higher marriage rate, attributed to growing prosperity as the economy expanded.

Most US graduates returned to work when their children were at school, though rarely to high-flying careers and often part-time. Most still became teachers, for which there was high demand due to higher birth-rates and the hours matched the needs of their children. 60% of women graduates trained as teachers. They complained of discrimination in traditionally male work like engineering. Surveys suggest that husbands rarely opposed their wives working, though many women had doubts about working when their children were young, internalizing common social opprobrium. And good, affordable childcare was rare, a persistent problem through the century, except in World War 2 when the workforce needed women. Goldin appears to believe that childcare was inadequate because demand was insufficient, though she offers no evidence. She later claims that ‘Nations as diverse as France, Sweden and the United Kingdom heavily fund childcare that is of high quality’. If only this was true of the UK! The reality is almost as bad as in the US, with minimal high quality, affordable, publicly funded childcare at any time except World War 2.  Recently, like most UK public services, it has been mainly privately provided, of declining quality and increasingly expensive. A recent survey describes it as a ‘deeply flawed system that makes it hard for families to get the help they need and forces some parents out of the workplace entirely’. Indeed the historical experience of gender inequality in the UK professions is very similar to Goldin’s description of the US. It is excellently surveyed by Helen McCarthy in Double Lives : A History of Working Motherhood (Bloomsbury, 2019), covering a wider range of occupations than Goldin. The US was even slower than Britain, and other high-income countries, to provide maternity leave, which remained rare in the 1980s. Still, Goldin judges, the US ‘lags the entire world in family-friendly policies’. Women have been helped by changes over time in the experience of household management. Better-off women would normally hire servants before World War 2, when poorer women found better work. Modern appliances emerged between the wars, by the 1950s becoming more efficient, making housework less arduous. More recently, high-income women have again hired live-in servants, often immigrants, for childcare and other duties.

Divorces soared in the 1960s following easing of the divorce laws, forcing some women to stay at work to support themselves and their children. Goldin challenges generalizations about the period in Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique (1963) which so influenced the 1960s women’s movement. Friedan, herself of the Group 3 generation, asserted that her peers were less ambitious and more eager to marry than previous generations, more dropped out of college, married early, had children and did not work, chasing ‘the feminine mystique’ which was indeed promoted in society. Goldin concludes that Friedan underestimated improvements over time and wrote before she could judge the full career outcomes for women of her generation. But she acknowledges that Friedan helped further inspire women’s desire for independence.

Opportunities expanded slightly for Group 4, who started careers before marrying and having children later than previous generations. They aspired to successful lifelong careers, often after observing their mothers’ frustration at their limited opportunities and urged on by them; also to ensure they could support themselves in the increasing likelihood of divorce. They were better prepared at high school for careers and fewer believed that women should be devoted to home and family. More took career-oriented college courses previously predominantly male, including business administration, law, medicine, leading to some career successes. Helped by the pill, they planned to establish themselves in careers, then have children, but they had fewer children: 27% had none, perhaps because they delayed too long. More worked when their children were young, aware that career-breaks disadvantaged women and, better paid than their predecessors, they could afford childcare.

Group 5 also aimed for careers then families and had higher birth and professional success rates than Group 4. Most had children after 35 and many in their 40s, aided by greater knowledge and publicity about fertility and the availability of In Vitro Fertilisation (IVF) and other new techniques. But they still fell behind their male contemporaries; motherhood still held women back. 15 years after graduation 30% worked full-time, especially those with the best professional training, a similar number part-time. MBAs found it hardest to work full-time with children, since work in business and finance was the least flexible, with the biggest penalties for short hours or brief leaves of absence.

But time was not the only barrier. Goldin describes a woman hired by a high-wage business as their first woman manager in the 1980s. She experienced resentment, insults, harassment from men she managed which affected her physical and mental health. She was denied pay rises and in 1998 discovered she was paid up to 40% less than men doing the same work who had started at the same time on the same salary. She could not easily move jobs because she lived and worked in a small town, near her husband’s work and her elderly parents. She launched a legal case against discrimination and was awarded $3.8m compensation, but never received it because it was overturned by the Supreme Court. Protest led to amending legislation signed by Obama. She was one of increasing numbers of women who have publicly challenged sex discrimination and pay inequality in recent decades.

But still in the early 21st century the gender earnings gap is greatest among the most highly educated. By 2000 difference in pay for similar work had much diminished, earnings were often equal when men and women started work, but women earned less over time even when the gap in hours worked was small, and less still if, due to childcare, they worked fewer hours and had more time off, as most mothers did. The resulting gap was greatest in the most prestigious, best paid, professions – law, medicine, universities, greatest of all in business and finance – which heavily penalize employees who take even brief career-breaks and cannot work long hours. But even women without children had lower incomes than men after 13 years.

Goldin argues that the gap owes less to discrimination in pay and promotion than to the organization of work, and that rising top pay has reinforced gender division in the home. Given a choice between sharing domestic tasks, with both partners cutting hours and pay, or one partner working long hours for a large salary while the other spends more time at home, most couples choose the high salary. They may aspire to ‘couple equity’ but it is too costly at the level of top earners, a modern barrier to gender equality when others have declined. As Goldin concludes, ‘of course, gender norms are at the root’ of these decisions.

She compares the experiences of lawyers and pharmacists since the 1960s. In 1966 women were 4% of law students, in 1987 40%, in 2020 50%, but their earnings still lag behind as women work less as they have children. By their fifteenth year at work, on average, lawyers working 60 hours per week earn two and a half times as much as one working 30 hours, male or female: hourly pay rises with hours worked.

Pharmacy is one of few professions that have changed. It requires high qualifications and women are now 54% of pharmacists, having been 15% in 1965 when those who worked longer hours earned considerably more. Women now earn almost as much as men even when they work shorter hours. Over time drugstores ceased to be small independent businesses. Big businesses took over, requiring less personal contact with clients. Qualified pharmacists became interchangeable, long and irregular hours were no longer needed and there was no penalty for shorter hours. About one-third of female pharmacists work part-time between ages 30-40; few take long breaks because hours are flexible. Pay rose relative to other professions and did not fall when women entered in record numbers, as normally occurs; it became ’a highly egalitarian profession’.

Similarly, vets and family doctors are no longer independent and on call 24/7 but work in larger units where schedules are predictable and employees can substitute for one another. Goldin judges that ‘veterinary medicine is the almost perfect profession for gender equality and couple equity – with controllable hours and fairly good substitutability among its professionals’. The proportion of women in both professions has greatly increased to 80% of vets, 50% of family doctors, but there is still not equality in promotion or pay.

She suggests that banking and finance may be moving in the same direction as more occupations become aware of the value of female talent and seek to retain it. Also, the increased demands on parents in the pandemic may have aroused awareness of the value of flexibility. But in most leading professions change remains slow. In none has the number of women at higher levels kept pace with the rising number of women entrants since the 1970s. In Goldin’s own profession of academic economics women were 3% of full professors in 1974, just 18% in 2018. Yet universities are recognizing that they are losing female talent and are becoming more generous with family leave and wary of pushing junior staff too hard. Big Wall St finance firms have begun to change their conditions to keep well-trained staff, protecting evenings and weekends from work demands, providing paid sabbaticals, rights to vacations of fixed length and faster paths to promotion. When Deloitte investigated why women were leaving, they discovered a culture of discrimination: women were not given the most lucrative accounts to manage and were not trusted with difficult decisions. They sought to change the culture.

Workers have changed too. Even before Covid more fathers asked for fewer weekend and evening disruptions and demanded higher pay when they occurred. Firms felt they had to respond for fear of losing staff. More parents spend more time with their children, especially more educated, higher-paid parents: women aged 25-34 twice as many hours per day in 2015 (10) as in 1990 (5). More men complain that they cannot spend enough time with their children. Six US states have increased family and medical leave and others have proposed it, while more companies have introduced family leave. Things are improving, but Goldin believes there will be no real equity until men make the same demands at work as women for parental leave and public subsidies for childcare and get firms to change their greedy ways by letting them know that their families are worth even more to them than their work.  Goldin estimates that 25% of US economic growth since 1960 is due to reduced barriers to employment, training and education of women and minorities, but ‘sexism, old boy networks and sexual harassment remain’.

Goldin finished the book during the Covid pandemic when the closure of schools added the demands of home schooling, together with parental home working, to mothers’ difficulties. Yet home working showed that flexible work is feasible and does not reduce productivity. Fathers working at home did more childcare and helped with home learning. Covid might show the way to greater gender equity, but, like other possible outcomes of the pandemic, it is quite uncertain.



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