Sheryl Sandberg interview on Harvard professor Claudia Goldin winning Nobel Prize

Sheryl Sandberg interview on Harvard professor Claudia Goldin winning Nobel Prize

When Claudia Goldin became the first woman offered tenure in the economics department at Harvard in 1990, some young female students were so thrilled they hosted a party.

“We threw a reception for her,” Sheryl Sandberg, former Facebook executive and Lean In author, told The Independent in an exclusive interview. At the time, Sandberg was an undergraduate studying economics, and she’d started a club with two friends called Women in Economics and Government.

“And I remember her saying at that reception that she’d always been the first woman, but this was the first time anyone had kind of noticed that,” said Sandberg, “but that really meant something to me, because I felt like that progress was worth noting.”

On Monday, 23 years after that party, Goldin was awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics, becoming the first woman to win the prize solo rather than sharing it.

Sheryl Sandberg was an undergraduate student at Harvard University when Claudia Goldin became the first female tenured economics professor at the institution

(2022 Invision)

“What I really want to emphasise, it’s not just that she’s a woman,” said Sandberg. “She got the Nobel Prize for her work on women and the labour market, so she’s a woman doing work on women – and that really matters.”

Back in the late 1970s, when Goldin was forging her way as a thirty-something economic historian in a male-dominated field, she was searching for her niche. The Bronx-born academic had been working on the economic history of the South but found herself “sniffing around for something of deeper personal interest” – eventually delving into the economics of the family.

That research led her to something of an epiphany around 1980 – which in turn sparked a passion that “consumed” her, she wrote.

“I realized that something was missing,” she wrote in 1998’s The Economist as Detective. “I was slighting the family member who would undergo the most profound change over the long run – the wife and mother. I neglected her because the sources had.”

She began to focus on wives and mothers and all women, studying the history and reality of females in the workforce – and now she’s become a significant figure in women’s history by shining the spotlight for decades on the pay gap and ongoing hurdles.

“Women’s role in the American labor force appeared to be unfolding before me, and I had personally experienced many of the changes I would be studying,” she wrote. “ I became consumed by the history of women in the labor force.”

Growing up in a Jewish family in the Bronx, Goldin had a natural curiosity and love of learning. She’d wanted to be an archaeologist as a child, fascinated by the mummies at New York’s Museum of Natural History; that gave way to a junior high interest in bacteriology, and by the time she graduated from Bronx High School of Science and enrolled at Cornell University, she’d formed a plan to study microbiology – but began a lifelong love affair with the humanities and social sciences instead.

Goldin earned her Ph.D. from the University of Chicago and taught at Princeton University and the University of Pennsylvania before joining the faculty of Harvard in 1990, where Sandberg and her friends hosted the welcome party for her.

“On a personal level, for myself, and anyone studying economics, seeing a woman achieve at that level, seeing a woman welcomed, obviously made a really big difference,” Sandberg told The Independent.

Her own senior undergraduate thesis, Sandberg says, “was very much inspired by her.”

The Nobel committee announced the award, declaring: “This year’s Laureate in the Economic Sciences, Claudia Goldin, provided the first comprehensive account of women’s earnings and labour market participation through the centuries,” the prize-giving body said in a statement. “Her research reveals the causes of change, as well as the main sources of the remaining gender gap.”

“Let’s make no mistake: the fact that she has done what she’s done, both for women but also by studying women, that makes a really, really big difference,” Sandberg said. “She inspired me then; she inspires me now.”

Goldin has spent decades following individual career trajectories as well as patterns, incorporating anecdotes as well as statistics into her work – and charting, in book after book, how things have (or haven’t) progressed. In 1990, she published Understanding the Gender Gap: An Economic History of American Women; three decades later, in 2021 and after many other publications, the title of her most recent book reflected the gains still to be made in Career & Family: Women’s Century-Long Journey toward Equity.


Women are making more and more educational and professional advancements and pay is equalising, Prof Goldin writes in that 2021 book after meticulous analysis of years of data. Many start out on an equal or near-equal footing after college and at the beginning of their careers – but gaps soon widen based on the career choices of individuals and couples as professionals consider childcare and babies come along, when women continue to shoulder the largest share of the burden.

One of the main problems amidst “tremendous progress,” Prof Goldin said, is the uptake by women of what she calls “greedy jobs”, employing a term utilised in previous writings.

“A very simple explanation would be that, if you work twice the number of hours, you get more than twice the pay” in “greedy jobs,” she told The Independent in 2021. “Of course, it’s not just number of hours, because women who work in many of the jobs that we can list – finance, management, law, academia – work many, many hours; they work 45 to 50 hours a week. So it’s not just generally the number of hours, it’s which hours: So is it the dinner hour? Is it the weekend? Is it the vacation? Is it two in the morning?”

Women who start in these “greedy jobs”, then, tend not to advance as far or fast in their careers as their male partners because they take a step back to raise families.

The Henry Lee Professor of Economics, however – who says she teaches “the extraordinary” – remains optimistic in the face of all her research as workplaces (and couples) continue to progress.

“I think back at what this amazing student of mine said, which is, when I asked ‘What would you like?’ She said, ‘I want a man who wants what I want,’ recounted Goldin.

“It might be costly for a while, but it just depends on how much you value couple equity,” Goldin said. ““It’s not that they’ve [men] given something up, it’s that they’ve gotten something in return – which is time with their children.”

Goldin lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts with her husband and fellow Harvard economist, Lawrence Katz, as well as their 13-year-old Golden Retriever, Pika – from whom the professor derives her username on X and whose exploits she chronicles online. Pika is also a high-achieving performance scent dog.

Passion, Goldin has emphasized, is imperative for excellence. She wrote as much in her 1998 essay, the future Nobel winner offering nuggets of advice for upcoming or aspiring professors.

“Whatever you research, choose a subject (in theory or reality) about which you feel passionately.” she wrote. “You will go to sleep with it and you will wake up with it. You’d better love it or you will hate yourself.”

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