A Century Of Women, Work – And Juggling Family


This International Women’s Day, emerging from a century-shaking pandemic that has upended work norms, it’s helpful to take a step back. A big step. Harvard Professor Claudia Goldin is the perfect person to do so. Economic historian and labour economist, she is uniquely positioned to zoom out and summarise a century of women’s “journey towards equity,” the subtitle of her most recent book, Career & Family. In it, she charts out a sort of Five Ages of Women, distinct phases shaped by history, war and technological evolutions. It’s fascinating, profound – and subtly optimistic.

Professor Goldin has been one of the leading analysts of women’s move into the labour force over the past three decades. Her perspective brings an economist’s lens to a range of issues – from the gender gap in employment and earnings, to income inequality and education. Goldin’s research insightfully interprets the present through the lens of the past. You may never see your career with quite the same eyes again…

The Five Ages of Women

Goldin charts a history of women through their aspirations and choices around family and work. These are driven by historical and technological forces largely outside of their control – wars, the invention of contraception (the Pill) and more recently, assistance with inception (IVF). Her five groups are clearly distinct in the lives they lived and the choices they were forced or enabled to make. If ever you think it’s all on your shoulders, this should be an enlightening read. We are, very clearly, all in this together.

  1. Family or Career – the limited number of women graduating from college in the first two decades of the 20th century had to choose between work and family – and did. Less than a third had children, and over half didn’t marry. Those who did, married late. It was clearly an either/ or era of hard choices.
  2. Job, then Family – those graduating in the two decades before WWII still married late, but their aspirations were hampered by the Depression, and they eventually retreated home and had children.
  3. Family then Job – the post-war period created the most cohesive of the five groups as demographic pressures swept women into high rates of early marriages and larger families. Almost 90% married, and most stopped work to have children. While many returned to employment later, their prospects were limited by the interruption. Their daughters learned the lesson, loud and clear.
  4. Career then Family – the women graduating in the 60s and 70s lived in reaction to Group 3. Often coached by their choice-strapped mothers, they were determined to work – and prioritised it. The technological revolution of the pill enabled the choice. Their idea was to get their careers on track before their kids. Some left the latter too late, and over a quarter never had children. Again, the next generation watched and learned.
  5. Career & Family – those born in the last two decades of the 20th century understood that delaying personal priorities too long may not deliver. They wanted it all and negotiated harder at work for the flexibility to get it. New tech like IVF arrived to support those goals. This group married late, but 90 percent were married by their 50s. We learned to work, but not at the cost of love.

The Good News, in Context

So let’s remember, this DigitALL-themed International Women’s Day 2023, that women’s rise isn’t a tale of tech, but it would never have been possible without technological innovations. A hundred years ago, women in most countries didn’t vote, couldn’t own a car (let alone a credit card), get into university or nab a decent job. Almost unimaginable now, the few women who pushed and pioneered their way into an education, usually did so at the cost of their claim to a family – or even to a spouse. The massive arrival of women into the US labor force, notes Goldin, was responsible for some 20 to 25 percent of economic growth since 1960. Today the gender gap on almost any measure – employment, pay or education, has narrowed almost everywhere. But as Goldin drily comments, narrowing doesn’t mean disappearing.

The Remaining Obstacle: Greedy Work

Many activists, consultants and policy makers point to myriad reasons for the stubborn gaps that remain. Whether women lean in or don’t, whether managers are biased consciously or unconsciously, whether entire sectors are sexist by nature – you can find a book and a course to address the problem. But Goldin points elsewhere, to a new ‘problem with no name,’ that is harder to see – and even harder to address.

She calls it ‘greedy work.’ It could also be called super-lucrative work. And it is the last bastion of male domination. Think private equity and VC, or magic circle law firms. The fact that there are a growing number of jobs that pay substantially more than the time invested in them. Or, as she explains it, if you work twice as many hours you will make far more than twice as much money. If one person in a couple is ready to work 80-hour weeks, prioritise work over anything and everything else, and be forever on call and available, they can tap into huge, record-breaking salaries. Which suddenly returns us to a traditional, FORD-motor-car-assembly-line style of parental specialisation. One parent focuses on career, the other on care. Because both are screaming for constant – and growing – attention. And because it pays.

The Heart of the Matter: Couple Equity

The difference today is that both halves of the couple are highly educated and skilled. Their potential is the same, their ability to exercise it is not. Companies swearing their commitment to gender equality still harvest their leaders from the self-sacrificial lambs on the treadmill. Couples that enter into personal commitments confident that they can finally claim an egalitarian marriage, are side-swiped by organisations and economies that care little for such niceties. Their equality is eaten alive by market forces. And women (mostly) find themselves suddenly learning, yet again, that their smarts and ambition may still not be the ticket to equity. Neither at work – nor, much to their surprise, at home.

While women are climbing ever higher, the personal costs are forever on display. Whether in the visible knock-downs of leaders like Jacinda Ardern and Nicola Sturgeon, or the less visible struggle to find a brilliant and supportive spouse ready to take turns with your brilliance. Much of the road ahead may depend less on women than on men. Will they join us on the journey? What lessons are they taking from prior generations of men? Are they learning from the autocrats that power requires putting women back in their place? Or are they listening to the research that proves (over and over) that human happiness is rooted in mutually-enhancing relationships. With us.

We may have to wait to find out from Group 6.

Claudia Goldin, Career & Family: Women’s Century-Long Journey toward Equity, published by Princeton University Press.

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