How ‘Greedy Work,’ More than Bias, Explains the Persistent Gender Wage Gap

There’s nothing as seductive as a single number that claims to tell you an entire story. Think of GDP. The unemployment rate. Or the number of cents on the dollar that women earn compared to men.

Single numbers are snapshots—evocative and simple. But like a picture of a family captured right before an argument erupts, they often obscure a more complicated story.

So it is with 82—the number of cents on the dollar that women make compared to men in full-time, year-long, paid work. Though many may be aware that the gender wage gap is far more complicated—and far more dynamic—than that number would have you believe (changing not only across racial groups but also over the span of an individual’s life), Harvard economist Claudia Goldin has added another wrinkle to the story.

In her new book, Career and Family, she argues the wage gap is the symptom of a far greater problem, one that has largely been invisible. Her exploration began with a mystery about the causes of the gap. A significant part of the wage gap is explained by factors like age, education, and experience.

“As those become narrower, the gender gap in pay should get smaller and smaller,” Goldin told me. “But there’s another portion, which is what we call the unexplained part, the residual. And the question was, what is the residual?” 

This is the part that tends to get labeled “wage discrimination,” but it became clear to Goldin that this wasn’t the full story. Within this residual, she said, “was something that was not due to labor market discrimination, but instead was due to something having to do with one’s own family.”

Goldin’s analysis begins with the late 1800s, tracing generational data that documents the proportion of women who had careers and children. As she looked for patterns, progress, and regression to better understand the causes and consequences of the gap, she also discovered something significant: that labor market discrimination—biased managers, for instance—likely play a far less central role in the perpetuation of the wage gap than does a structural issue, which she calls greedy work.

In our conversation below, we talk about greedy work and how it can capsize even the most egalitarian-minded relationship, what feminist icon Betty Friedan got wrong about women’s progress, and the gender equity solutions she hopes her work will encourage.

Elizabeth Weingarten: A central theme of your book is this idea of “greedy work,” which makes it hard for everyone—even couples that want to create egalitarian families—to actually realize equity. You talk about how it leads to couples jettisoning dreams of equity for increased family income. I’m in my early 30s right now and I see that in pretty much every couple that I know. I would love for you to describe how you define greedy work.

Claudia Goldin: [Egalitarian-minded couples] want to pursue what I call couple equity. But instead, when they have children or some other very important care responsibilities in which at least one of them will need to have a job with a certain amount of flexibility, they have to then ask themselves, “How much are we willing to pay for this equity?”  Equity may be expensive. And the expense is due to the notion of greedy work. 

A simple way of thinking about greedy work is that if one works, let’s say, twice as many hours, like working 60 hours a week rather than 30 hours a week, it gives you more than twice the income. That means that your implicit hourly wage is rising with the number of hours. It’s not really just the number of hours, it’s also whether you can call the shots on which hours you work; [the kind of job where you can’t call the shots] is the sort of job that may be harder for someone who has care responsibilities to do. Flexibility is multidimensional.

So the price of equity can be the difference between two earnings scenarios: one person in a couple taking the higher paying, less flexible, and “greedier” role, while the other partner takes a more flexible, lower paying one. And the other scenario is one in which both forgo higher earnings, and take more flexible work. 

At the center of “greedy work” is a structural problem that significantly contributes to pay inequity, particularly after couples have children: firms with some of the highest gender gaps are also in industries where worker substitution is uncommon or anathema. Employers will pay a premium for a specific consultant, lawyer, wealth adviser, etc. to be on-call for big clients around the clock. You write in-depth about pharmacy, which is a notable exception to this work structure (as well as some tech occupations). What do you think are the incentives for employers that currently operate with a nonsubstitution model—the law firms and consulting firms of the world—to switch over? 

The incentive for employers—for owners of capital—is to make certain that you’re not paying too much for your inputs. The bottom line is what matters. If inputs get too expensive, you’ll find a substitute. Markets should work. 

For example, if pediatricians want more flexibility, and they come into their workplace, which is a hospital, and say, “You have scheduled me at impossible times,” then that hospital has an incentive to figure out how they can create schedules so that their pediatricians are happier. 

So in some sense, markets do work. And if workers—even these high-end workers—say, “You’re paying me X, but it really actually isn’t enough because you’re telling me not to have dinner with my family every night, and I want to have dinner with my family every night, and you’re going to have to pay me more,” then the firm might turn around and say, “Hey, maybe I should think about a different way of doing things.”

Something that I really enjoyed about your book was your examination of some of the myths and misperceptions that we hold about the women who came before us—some of which were perpetuated by a surprising source: Betty Friedan, who wrote inaccurately about the previous generation. You write that we have a “limited vision of a failed revolution”—that we haven’t properly understood the complex, historical trajectory of women’s rights. How has this “limited vision” impacted our ability to fight successfully for gender equality—and what could a deeper understanding mean for future work?

We today put much of the blame for the gender gap in earnings on what goes on in the labor market, and on those who make decisions in the labor market, such as managers and supervisors, and fellow workers for that matter. But it’s harder for us to blame those who, in some sense, mean the most to us. It’s hard for us to put the blame, for example, on our parents, to the extent that we felt that we as girls may not have gotten the education that our brothers got, or it may be very hard for us to put the blame on decisions that we make with our spouses, or on society for having expectations that we as women are the ones who are the caregivers. It’s interesting that we speak forcefully about women needing better negotiating abilities. The city of Boston had a program that offered help to women to help them negotiate better with their supervisors and their managers in terms of their jobs. But in fact, the most important negotiating as an adult we can do as women is with our spouse. So that’s part of the answer to your question. 

The other part is, Why did Betty Friedan get it wrong? Part of why Betty Friedan got it wrong was that she could only look to the past. She couldn’t look to the future. The other part of it, of course, was it’s a much better story as a journalist to say that we [women] could do better than we were doing, and that the previous generation did better in terms of their career success and their aspirations. 

She was looking at a generation—the mothers of the baby boom—graduating college, getting married very, very soon after graduating college, and having kids very soon after that. She looked at them, and she was saying to them, “You’re unhappy in the home, you’re shining the table, you’re cleaning the toilet bowl, you’re doing all these things, but you have no identity. The problem with no name is that you’re not fulfilled.” In fact, this is a group that sort of knew that they were going to do this [domestic labor] for some time. In college, they had trained themselves, gotten degrees in education, for example, or in library science, or in social work, and planned to go out into the labor force later and have fairly fulfilling jobs or careers. 

What Friedan didn’t see was that the previous generation had a very, very low fraction of women who had children and a career. So in fact, this shift from having a career or family, to having a family and then a job—and possibly a career—was in some sense progress. She saw it as being highly regressive.

What are the areas of progress that you think we have trouble seeing right now in the way that Friedan had trouble seeing that from her historical vantage point? In your work, have you discovered particular blindspots that we have when we think about the progress that we’ve made?

I do calculations of the fraction of women who have a career and family. There’s been considerable progress both over time and within the lives of individual groups. But it’s often the case, for good reason, that individuals who see themselves as getting less than someone who’s their [male] equivalent is rightfully saying, “There’s something wrong.” So even though I can look at these groups, and I can say, “Look how much progress there has been. X percent of women have career and family now, versus in the past it was much, much lower,” the individuals can still look at me and say, “But it should be equal to what equivalent men have and it isn’t. So it’s unfair.”

In other words, the insights that we get about the progress of groups does not erase the experience that individual women might have in the workplace.

That’s right. I mean, if 35 percent of us [women] have a career and family, but for men, it’s 60 percent, why? Why do men with children, for example, get a boost in their earnings, as we can measure it? And women, in fact, have just the opposite? I mean, there’s clearly something that is unfair. What I see my work doing is pointing the finger where it belongs. The question is, Is the unfairness due to what happens in the labor market? Is the unfairness due to biased managers and supervisors and biased coworkers? I’m not saying that doesn’t exist. But that isn’t where the lion’s share of this is going to be found.

How do you hope your work will change the way that folks who care about closing the wage gap are working towards solutions? 

There are three places for real solutions. 

The first one is in the labor market. And that concerns what we’ve been talking about, which is, to put it a somewhat different way, reducing the price of flexibility. If flexible work is more productive and less expensive for workers, then we will be in a much better place. If the price of flexibility goes down, the difference between the inflexible job and the flexible job—that price of equity for the couple—will become smaller. Let’s say I’m working for a tech firm that requires me to be on call on weekends, and I get $30,000 more to do that than someone who has some position that doesn’t require them to do that—if that position can be made more productive, then that difference is going to be less. 

One of the amazing silver linings to the pandemic is that we have begun to reduce the price of flexibility by increasing the productivity of individuals in the more flexible job. Let me give you a very good example. It used to be that to do a merger and acquisition in Korea, you went to Seoul, or to close a business deal in Japan, you went to Tokyo. If you were told you had to do that every weekend, the gains from that job would not be something that [people with care responsibilities] could enjoy. But if in fact you can do that by Zoom, if you could build the trust to do the merger and acquisition, if you can build the relationship to sign the contract, and you don’t have to travel, then what you’ve done is you have increased the productivity of the flexible job. So the first place for solutions is to reduce the price of flexibility. Another way of thinking about that is to increase the productivity of the flexible job. 

Another place for solutions is right at home. And that concerns changing gender norms regarding who is the on-call, at-home parent. That doesn’t mean that person—the on-call parent—doesn’t have a job. That [could] mean that the woman is in the big-ticket law firm and the man is in the boutique law firm. Changing gender norms at home and in society is the hard part. I think changing the labor market is probably easier. 

The third place for a solution is in the realm of policy, and that would concern lowering the price of care, either for children, or let’s say for the elderly. And there’s movement there. In March 2020, if someone had said to me, “You’re going to go through a year of exile, and it’s going to be really bad, and people are going to die, there’s going to be unemployment, but you’re going to come out of it and be in a country in which people are talking about universal childcare and they’re talking about changing the Medicaid system so that daughters aren’t the ones who are going to be unpaid workers caring for their parents,” I would probably have said, “That’s not going to happen”. But somehow good things seem to be happening.