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Contextualising Claudia Goldin’s Nobel Prize win; why this is a turning point



Claudia Goldin’s win of the 2023 Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel is a turning point for women’s recognition in the field. Goldin is the third woman to ever win the prize and the first woman to win the award solo. Over the last few years, the field of economics has pushed to improve the parity between men and women in the field. And while progress may feel slow, this Nobel win is further evidence that we are on a promising track. When we contextualise Goldin’s win with the historical data on the percentage of women within the field aligned with the award history of the Nobel, we see that this is likely the beginning of more women receiving this sort of spotlight. We cannot overstate this moment.


Historically, the Nobel Prize is awarded to individuals and research that have made a significant and prolonged impact on the field of economics. The award is not meant to be awarded to ideas or research which are “fads” or may go out of style. In fact, the award to Banjeree, Duflo, and Kremer in 2019 garnered some more attention than other years because of concerns that RCTs were still in a preliminary stage and may be a fad.1


One of the best ways to understand what ideas are meant to last is to see what has stood the test of time. This means that typically the award in economics is given to research and individuals which have been around for a few decades. Another reason why we see the prize awarded to individuals typically in the late stages of their lives. In fact, one study on the time gaps in Nobel prizes awards shows that the average time gap between the publication of the awarded research and receiving the Nobel award is around 30 to 34 years for economics. So, typically it takes decades for one to receive recognition of the Nobel Prize for their worthy research.


Given the time delay in the Nobel award, we should hope that as the number of women in economics has risen, we will see more women receiving high level recognition such as the Nobel Prize. Today, women make up roughly 22% of the staff in a top economics department, per the 2022 Women in Economics Index. This number has indeed been steadily growing since the 1970s.


The percentage of women in graduating PhD cohorts in economics has grown from roughly 5% in the early 1970s to upwards of 25% in the last 5 years, per IDEAS/RePEc. We see that over the last 50 years, the number of women in the field has steadily risen. Claudia Goldin received her PhD from the University of Chicago in 1972. So at the time, Goldin was graduating with a mere 5% of her other graduating colleagues as women. We see that this percentage steadily rises over time with roughly 10% throughout the 1980s, 15% throughout the 1990s and 20% from the 2000s and on.

Graph 1: Percentage of women in their graduating cohorts from 1971 to 2023 as per IDEAS/RePEc (https://ideas.repec.org/top/female.html).


Thus it is cause for hope that Goldin’s win is just the beginning of seeing more women receiving high-level recognition such as the Nobel. The wave of women who graduated from their PhD has been slowly increasing. Now many of these women who graduated from cohorts in the 70s-80s are now at late stages of their careers where levels of high recognition like the Nobel are more likely. And we can hope that the percentage of women at this stage of their career should continue to grow similarly to the percentage of women graduating from a PhD in economics.


When we look at the John Bates Clark Medal we see more reason for hope and evidence of progress. The John Bates Clark medal is awarded by the American Economics Association to an American Economist under the age of 40 who is “adjudged to have made a significant contribution to economic thought and knowledge.” The medal is typically used as a way to understand where the field is at as it is awarded to younger economists, many of which go on to win the Nobel Prize.


The awardees of the John Bates Clark Medal in recent years is further evidence of the increased recognition of women in the field and a likely precursor to what we can further see with the Nobel Prize. In the last five years, 2 of the 5 awards went to women, i.e. 40% to women. And in the last twenty years, 5 of the 18 awards went to women, i.e. 27.8%. As we continue to progress through time, the status and recognition of women in the field continues to grow.


So, Claudia Goldin’s Nobel Prize win is likely just the beginning. When we contextualise Goldin’s win it shows how truly impressive and monumental her achievements are given the low number of women graduating with PhDs in economics at her time. Based on the increased percentage of women graduating with a PhD in economics and the increased percentage of women receiving the John Bates Clark Medal, we can be hopeful that with time this will also be reflected in the Nobel. Goldin’s win is a turning point for women’s recognition in the field.


While we are still far from gender parity, the field of economics has made big steps forward and we cannot underestimate this moment. This is not to say that things are on a perfect track as the field still needs to work on itself. However, if we follow the lead of Claudia Goldin and take a historical look at this win, we see an especially hopeful picture.


 

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