Claudia Goldin and ‘grand convergence’

Claudia Goldin’s presidential address to the American Economic Association – don’t go away – is a stunner. It really should help to shift the whole focus of two important debates: the role and use of skills; and questions of gender equality at work. So it’s hugely PP-relevant.

There are large chunks of sophisticated number-crunching which are well over my head, but Goldin does a great job of summarising the key points, and how they fit into the historical narrative of what she calls the ‘grand convergence’ of male and female roles. She traces out the previous chapters of this narrative, which include greater female participation at work and, especially, changes in women’s educational levels relative to men. She shows very powerfully the need to look at women’s earnings over time: the gender gap grows very considerably after about 5 years for all cohorts (though one rather surprising finding seems to be a diminution of the gap from about 45/50 onwards – I’m not at all sure that fits with our UK picture).

Crucially Goldin finds that what happens within occupations is far more important to the gender pay gap than is the distribution by occupation.  We should pay more attention to how work is organised in particular occupations and organisations than to trying to equalise the spread of men and women across occupations (though that should not be ignored).   That’s something to get discussion going.

The crunch issue is time.  “Gender differences in earnings across occupations and occupational groups substantially concern job flexibility and continuity. By job flexibility I mean a multitude of temporal matters including the number of hours, precise times, predictability and ability to schedule one’s own hours.”

Her conclusion: “What, then, is the cause of the remaining pay gap? Quite simply, the gap exists because hours of work in many occupations are worth more when given at particular moments and when the hours are more continuous.”

This  is deceptively simple.  Goldin shows how pay gaps depend on how work is organised, and how this varies by occupation. The key factors are:

– how often the worker has to meet strict deadlines

– how far the worker has to be in contact with others

– how far the job requires the worker to be around to maintain interpersonal relationships

– how much  the work is structured to fit the particular worker

– how much the worker exercises discretion over the service provided .

The lower the score, the less the need for continuous, full-time presence at work – and therefore the lower the pay gap.  She illustrates this with examples from several professions, including pharmacy, which turns out to be the most egalitarian of all.

And here’s the punchline on what she calls the ‘last chapter’ in the convergence story:
“The last chapter must…involve a reduction in the dependence of remuneration on particular segments of time. It must involve greater independence and autonomy for certain types of workers and the ability of workers to substitute seamlessly for each other…The various types of temporal flexibility require changes in the structure of work so that their cost is reduced.”

Not all occupations can be organised to be flexible in the same way, and to have the features which would deliver Goldin’s agenda. But there is much to be done in rigorously looking at work organisation across in different occupations, and seeing what progress can be made. Getting away from broad generalisations about the importance of skill, and looking hard-headedly at what new time regimes are needed in order for people to exercise their skills and be rewarded for them, are two crucial steps.

Goldin says this is not a zero-sum game for men and women. I agree with her.  My only tentative point of disagreement is with her use of ‘grand convergence’.  Convergence is a term I’ve used myself;  the problem is that the convergence has very much been of women towards a male pattern.  I’m not sure we don’t need a different term, which makes two things clear: first, that not all the change is female-towards-male;  and secondly that we need to maintain a broad spread of work time options, across which both sexes are to be found, even if in different distributions.

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