Harvard Professor Claudia Goldin on the steps of Littauer.

Students, colleagues, and friends gathered on the steps of Littauer Center to celebrate Claudia Goldin.

Niles Singer/Harvard Staff Photographer

Campus & Community

This woman’s work

8 min read

Former students of Nobel laureate Goldin who are now colleagues recall how she helped shape careers, blazed new trails in economics

After learning she had won the 2023 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences on Monday, Claudia Goldin, the Henry Lee Professor in the subject, publicly thanked her students for pushing her to “the frontiers of knowledge every day.”

Many of her former students who have gone on to become colleagues rejoiced at the news of an honor they say is well-deserved, and perhaps even overdue.

Princeton economist Cecilia Rouse ’86, Ph.D. ’92, said she is “absolutely thrilled” by Goldin’s selection. A former adviser to Presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton, Rouse chaired the Council of Economic Advisers to President Biden until April.

“What they recognized was a body of work, which piece by piece has helped us to fill in a portrait and understand the role of women in the economy over centuries. She has helped us to understand the wage structure over the 20th century. She’s done work on education, and she does so with intention; she does so creatively,” Rouse said of Goldin, who was her doctoral thesis adviser at Harvard.

“Claudia marched in to document the changing roles of women in society at a time when many male economists just didn’t care.”

Betsey Stevenson, Ph.D. ’01

Goldin is only the third woman to win the prize and the first to do so solo. She was also the first woman to receive tenure in Harvard’s Economics Department in 1989.

“Claudia marched in to document the changing roles of women in society at a time when many male economists just didn’t care,” said Betsey Stevenson, Ph.D. ’01, who counts Goldin as a mentor and is now a professor of economics and public policy at the University of Michigan. “Claudia understood that work and life were intertwined.”

Goldin’s Nobel recognition “means so much for the evolution of economics” given her important work and “the army of economists” she has trained over the years, she said.

The prize “reflects her vision to be able to see how women’s expectations for their lives were being reshaped over time, as opportunities shifted, as social costs and benefits shifted, as financial costs and benefits shifted, and her tireless work as a data detective to factually document them,” Stevenson said. “This also played out in the classroom and in her office as she understood that her students were wrestling with these very choices.”

Physician-economist Marcella Alsan ’99, M.P.H. ’05, Ph.D. ’12 can attest to that. She recalled bumping into Goldin and her husband, Lawrence Katz, the Elisabeth Allison Professor of Economics, in the department’s kitchen when she was a graduate student. Alsan had recently given birth — “which was unusual” for grad students back then — and was feeling disheveled and stressed.

Alsan assumed they didn’t know who she was, so she quietly headed for the door, hoping to slip out.

Goldin “stopped me and asked me to sit down, and she called me by my name, which was revolutionary for a grad student,” said Alsan, who now runs the Health Inequality Lab at the Malcolm Wiener Center for Public Policy at Harvard Kennedy School. “She first asked me, how was my young family? She recognized that I had been pregnant and that I had another child at home. And then she asked me, what was I working on?”

“She saw my duality as both a mother and a scholar, and she embraced both of them. And I don’t think I was special. I think she did that for so many women, and for so many men, as well.”

Marcella Alsan ’99, M.P.H. ’05, Ph.D. ’12

Alsan replied that she was researching the tsetse fly and its long-term effects on the trajectory of poverty in Africa as a possible dissertation topic. “She was so enthusiastic and said, ‘You have to study that! You have to talk to this person and that person, and we’ll get you in touch with these people!’” said Alsan, who was named a MacArthur Foundation fellow in 2021. “It just changed the trajectory of my career.”

More important, Alsan said, was Goldin’s recognition and appreciation for the complexity of her life at that time.

“She saw my duality as both a mother and a scholar, and she embraced both of them,” said Alsan. “And I don’t think I was special. I think she did that for so many women, and for so many men, as well.”

In 2000, Goldin and Rouse wrote a landmark paper on how “blind” auditions done behind identity-obscuring screens improved the probability of a woman being hired or promoted in a symphony orchestra. Its origin, Rouse said, is emblematic of Goldin’s creativity and her self-described detective-like approach.

“It started when I was a graduate student. I was at the National Bureau of Economic Research, and I was playing [the flute] in the graduate student orchestra. Claudia said, ‘What do you know about blind auditions?’ I said, ‘I know nothing. Why?’ And she said, ‘Because a student had a throw-away line in a paper where she said, ‘And, of course, the use of blind auditions increases the presence of women in symphony orchestras.’”

Rouse soon found herself putting aside her dissertation and contacting musicians, including her own flute teacher, surveying orchestras across the country, digging into their archives, and sitting in on auditions trying to piece together the necessary data.

“Economic historians don’t have big data sets [as] economists who do empirical work today readily have,” said Rouse. “If there were data sets, they may be in a file drawer somewhere. She has been creative at finding those pieces and stitching together what happened.

“I still describe it as the most fun paper that I’ve ever written,” said Rouse, “in no small part because of working with Claudia, but also because of the process of uncovering and learning and putting the pieces together.”

Goldin’s relentless “rigor” in approaching problems, dogged pursuit of data and facts, and her application of theoretical thinking to the analysis of diverse facts “has been incredibly influential in the field,” said Carola Frydman, M.A. ’04, Ph.D. ’06, a former teaching assistant to Goldin who came from Argentina to get a doctorate in economics at Harvard “because of her.”

“She’s incredibly curious, and not only about things that she works on,” said Frydman. “She’s not an accommodating mentor. She pushes you; she wants you to work hard, and to think deeply and to try to get things right,” but is also “incredibly welcoming” and treats everyone as a peer.

Goldin has frequently made clear that her scholarship does not include developing policy solutions. Nevertheless, her work on discrimination, women in the labor force, and education has opened new areas of inquiry and spurred related research and policymaking for others.

“She’s not an accommodating mentor. She pushes you; she wants you to work hard, and to think deeply and to try to get things right.”

Carola Frydman, M.A. ’04, Ph.D. ’06

“Claudia’s work is incredibly important because it brings key, historical perspectives to economics research that have sometimes been overlooked. Her work on gender and labor markets, which has changed the way we view the gender gap in earnings, is a great example,” said Maya Sen ’00, A.M. ’11, Ph.D. ’12, a professor of public policy and director of the Stone Program in Wealth Distribution, Inequality, and Social Policy at the Kennedy School, where Goldin has advised students and worked with faculty affiliates for more than a decade.

“I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that Claudia basically paved the path for economists, and social scientists more generally, to study things like gender and race in the economy from a quantitative perspective,” which has helped the broader study of inequality to flourish, Sen said in an email.

Goldin’s work on discrimination and women in the labor force, especially the “blind auditions” paper, was “absolutely instrumental” in advancing scholarship on women and public policy efforts on gender equity, said Iris Bohnet, co-founder of the Women and Public Policy Program at the Kennedy School.

“It became such an important example of discrimination, of showing how discrimination happens, but also of starting to open up the possibility that we could overcome discrimination by what I call ‘behavioral design’ — redesigning how we do our work, how we evaluate people, particularly in this case, how we promote,” Bohnet said.

“It really shaped my whole thinking on not just the measuring of discrimination, but also the overcoming of discrimination,” she said. “That instead of fixing people, we needed to fix the system, and rethink how we do things.”

This past spring, Goldin was named the Lee and Ezpeleta Professor of Arts and Sciences.