Claudia Goldin


Nobel Prize Conversations

“I think we all have doubts about what we’re doing. I wouldn’t call that failure. It’s a sense that we question our own work”

There are many roads one can take in life. But to what extent will your life choices decide what kind of person you become? Listen to our podcast conversation with economist and laureate Claudia Goldin, as we discuss the choices that brought her to this moment in time.

Our podcast host Adam Smith, who meets Goldin in the year after she received the prize in economic science, also talks with her about the definition of a good teacher and Goldin’s pioneering research in women’s labour market. 

This conversation was published on 6 June, 2024. The host of this podcast is’s Adam Smith, joined by Clare Brilliant.

Below you find a transcript of the podcast interview. The transcript was created using speech recognition software. While it has been reviewed by human transcribers, it may contain errors.

Claudia Goldin with her diploma and medal
Claudia Goldin with her diploma and medal during a visit to the Nobel Foundation on 11 December 2023. © Nobel Prize Outreach. Photo: Nanaka Adachi.


Claudia Goldin: Robert Fogel was so fascinating and so interested in figuring out why things happen. People make these subjects special, and I know that every day when I walk into a classroom that I am representing a field. If I do it well, I will convince people. If I don’t do it well, they’re going to walk away.  

Adam Smith: You can truly hear Claudia Goldin’s commitment and sense of responsibility listening to her there. That question she’s posing why things happen is absolutely fundamental to making progress. The way she often phrases it of why are things as they are, is the starting point for everything. I think there are probably far too few people looking at the world and asking, how did it come to be like this? Because that is surely absolutely key to working out how to make things better. I suppose the public celebration around Claudia Goldin’s prize was in part because people recognised the importance of that historical perspective in studying questions that are of burning importance today. Please join me for this conversation with Claudia Goldin. 


Clare Brilliant: This is Nobel Prize conversations. Our guest is Claudia Goldin, the 2023 laureate in economic sciences. She was awarded the prize for having advanced our understanding of women’s labour market outcomes. Your host is Adam Smith, chief scientific officer at Nobel Prize Outreach. This podcast was produced in cooperation with Fundación Ramón Areces. Claudia Goldin is the Henry Lee professor of economics and holds the Li and Deletto professorship of Arts and Sciences at Harvard University. She talks to Adam from her office in busy Cambridge, Massachusetts, as we hear them discuss channeling a preacher’s fervor in her classroom, how she takes care of her students long after graduation, and narrowing her academic interests down from practically everything to economic history. But first she tells us about her golden retriever and how the nose truly knows. 


Smith: Pika is a champion, right?  

Goldin: He’s titled in scenting, he’s not a breed champion. Scenting is the sport version of what we see in the real world in bomb detection, airport security, and so on. Whereas tracking is the sport version of search and rescue. When they do scenting as a sport, you train them on three essential oils. In the US we use birch, clove and anis, and these scents are then hidden in various places, outdoors, indoors, on vehicles, etc. The dogs have to find the scent. They have to find the source of the scent. Then when you train a dog to do bomb work or to do airport security, all you’re doing is you’re switching the scent from birch or CL or anis. You’re adding a scent. You’re saying now you’re supposed to find money, the scent of money, you’re supposed to find prosciutto, you’re supposed to find any type of food.  

Smith: Have you ever found a practical use for what Pika can do?  

Goldin: It turns out that Pika not only has great scenting ability, but he can also sent cancers, which is bizarre in other dogs. I’ve never tried him on anything else. But he has scented two cancers on two different dogs.  

Smith: That’s extraordinary.  

Goldin: I know he also scent UTIs. He’s very good at scenting UTIs on female dogs.  

Smith: Presumably this isn’t a skill that he alone possesses.  

Goldin: No, it’s not. But he’s just very affected by whatever proteins there are that are to him odd. He’ll shake and he’ll become obsessive about it.  

Smith: I imagine that skills like pikers are already being used by vets and perhaps doctors.  

Goldin: Most of the work that’s done with these scenting dogs does have to do with the detection of disease. Some of the most famous of this work had to do with the detection of brakes in the oil pipeline. It’s a very famous example. When they built the oil pipeline under the tundra, they knew that it was leaking. They knew that they were getting different readings at one end in the other, but they couldn’t figure out where it was leaking. Whatever they tried to do, they couldn’t get readings of the leakage. Someone was hired to bring three dogs to train them on that particular odour. One of the dogs managed to find at least a hundred leaks, in fact, way more than a hundred leaks. This was leaks that were under the tundra. The ability of these dogs to scent and to scent things that we do not have mechanisms we don’t have machinery to do is pretty extraordinary.  

Photo of Claudia Goldin with her husband
Claudia Goldin with her husband, Lawrence, and dog, Pika, after hearing of the announcement of the 2023 prize in economic sciences. © Claudia Goldin

Smith: Absolutely amazing. Also a beautiful link to your own childhood desire to be a detective and that you are uncovering information from the archives. Let’s start with your childhood. You grew up in New York wanting to be a detective or an archeologist or someone who found things out.   

Goldin: Sort of. I can’t say that I grew up thinking that I was going to be anything. I grew up as a happy child in the Bronx and this was not a place of big playgrounds, trees, grass and flowers. This was the city. It was an okay place, but it wasn’t a beautiful green environment. I think that I, as a kid, unlike my students right now, did not have much of a sense of where I was going. I was just a happy kid. When I would go to museums in Manhattan, I would explore various parts of these museums. One of them happened to be the mummies. What child is not interested in beautiful gold cases that have things that are really unknown in them. So I was interested in how they found them and where they found them.  

Smith: Do you think that there’s possibly too much pressure placed on young people now? Maybe there was then as well. To be something, to know what you want to be, to take a path when actually it’s better just to explore the world in general. 

Goldin: Certainly the students I see have this notion that they have to have a plan. My guess is that they have felt this way for a very long time. It has been an incredible burden because when you have a plan, chances are you’ve been disappointed. Of course, the fact that they’re all at Harvard means that they haven’t been too disappointed.  

Smith: Yes. But I suppose it’s possible that you will change as you grow up and that you will find that actually you’ve taken on a life and possibly even a personality that didn’t quite fit when you get to the end of all this study and work. 

Goldin: I think in addition, there are many roads that one could take. I think if I hadn’t become an economist, I would’ve become maybe a field biologist or a bacteriologist. How would I be different right now? Maybe I wouldn’t be different at all. I’d be thinking in somewhat different ways about very different things, but the person wouldn’t be very different.  

Smith: I read that one of the books you encountered as a young person was Paul Decree’s ‘Microbe Hunters’. That’s a book that so often comes up in conversations with Nobel Prize laureates, especially laureates who grew up at that particular time. What was it about that book that you found influential?  

Goldin: It’s beautifully written. I think that’s part of it. It shows the importance of writing well and the stories are the stories of the great successes. In fact, one of the interesting things about what we were just speaking of is that it’s also important to write stories about people who took a path and it didn’t go anywhere. People whose experiments didn’t work out. Of course this book is not about that. This book is about the Pasteurs and the cos and the semi vices, the listers, the people who for much of the 20th century, we believe they saved our world. What’s interesting is that in my own work as an economic historian, up until three years ago, I would say to classes the germ theory of disease, finding that was extraordinarily important in making certain that the population supported public works that cleaned water and that separated sewage from clean water. That saved us, that these advances led to vaccines. They led to the acceptance of these vaccines by many. What it proceeded to do was (this is what I would’ve said three years ago) get rid of infectious disease as a great killer. What we’re left with is chronic disease. I would of course revise what I said then. In fact, what I would say now is that we dodged the bullet many times since 1918. We dodged it over and over again. The COVID pandemic was destiny.  

Smith: There’s more coming down the line, no doubt at some point.  

Goldin: Right? But we are far better prepared. We got that pandemic. We somehow were lucky to have that happen at a moment when we had the mRNA vaccine ability on the shelf. In fact, that’s what the other Nobel Prizes were for. At the same time, we had high speed internet, we had cloud storage, we had all of the things that allowed us to deal with the pandemic, stay at home, stay safe to the extent that we could stay safe at home and be productive.  

Smith: Indeed, yes. Of utterly different world from 1918. I really love this idea of having well-written stories of failure alongside the well-written stories of success. So often people like you talk about the importance of learning to fail and students ask about it all the time. How do I get used to the failure as things start to go wrong as you get more into research? But we don’t at school really encounter stories of failure and we, we are not prepared for it. As you said earlier, that it’s about a succession of successes that you have to aim for and you feel terrible if it all goes wrong and you don’t meet your goals as a young person. How do you inculcate an acceptance of failure and a, a way of dealing with it?  

Goldin: We do this in small ways. We don’t want to say to someone, and by the way, you’re embarking on something sort of like throwing someone out from a plane with a parachute and saying, there’s some chance that parachute isn’t going to open. We’re not going to do it in the big way. But what we do, I’ve been in charge of placement at Harvard for several years and I’ve done placement for a long time. What placement is every year we produce a certain number of PhD students and someone, me responsible for making certain that they get jobs. That doesn’t mean that I get them a job, but I make certain that when the school is looking for someone in a particular field, I talk up our students, I learn what they’re working on. What I do as well is I prepare our students for what it’s like to be on the job market. What we do is we discuss the small failure. We say, you’re going to get X number of interviews and some of them aren’t going to go very well and some of them are going to go very well, but you’re never going to know which one is going to invite you back. Let me just tell you that it’s generally a third of them will invite you back. Is it two thirds failure? No, it’s one third success. That’s one thing that we do. Another thing is that all of our students will be writing papers and submitting them to journals and getting referee reports back. Some of these reports are going to say, we don’t want your paper. Some of them are going to say, well we don’t want it unless you do the following. We help them with that.  

They’re not failures. There are small types of moments when you didn’t get a yes, but you didn’t really get a no either. So you shouldn’t stop in your tracks and rethink your entire life. These are small moments when you know you didn’t get the yes. But these are moments that young people, someone who feels that their job is on the line, their personal sense of worth is on the line. As an advisor, I make certain that they realise that we all get these. So that said, it’s the same thing in love, of course.  

Smith: Yeah. But it hurts more in love.  

Goldin: In fact, I’ll tell them that whatever you feel now, it’s going to feel a lot worse if this was love. But in fact, as someone who teaches graduate students when they leave with their PhDs, we often say, and it’s really no joke, you have a lifetime warranty. We get students from 10 years ago sending us notes that say, I just got this referee report. What should I do?  

Smith: How extraordinary that you take care of your flock in this way. That’s, I think probably pretty unusual that you have the energy and the resource and the desire to do it.  

Goldin: We have excellent students and they are the next generation in our field.  

Smith: One of your laureates from 2023, of course Katalin Karikó had failure in spades rejection by her university. She was downgraded in her job, eventually fired. She has this extraordinary way that she talks about that she dealt with it all, which was really to think that these are things I can’t control, so let it be, I’ll just concentrate on what I can fix. Which indicates a resilience that is beyond what most of us I think have.  

Goldin: Right. She’s passed that resilience onto her daughter.  

Smith: Exactly. The Olympic champion. 

Goldin: I think we all have doubts about what we’re doing. I wouldn’t call that failure. It’s a sense that we question our own work. I always tell my students, be your own worst enemy or else someone else will be. That’s what I would think of as moments of not failure but moments of self-doubt. But they’re moments in which you think I made this statement. Can I really back it up?  

Smith: Are you a very introspective person, do you think? Do you ask that question of yourself a lot?  

Goldin: Never. I actually think that economists are not very introspective.  

Smith: Why do you say that?  

Goldin: Just because of the ones I know are sort of less introspective. They’re less filled with angst. There are some economists filled with angst, but I don’t see that many that are filled with angst. I think that we are more forward looking.  

Smith: How very interesting. Is it too uncertain a field to be filled with angst? If you start worrying about the uncertainties, then you’re just going to get lost.  

Goldin: I think that it is sort of like physics. It’s a field in which the world around you is governed by a set of forces. If something changes, you have some idea how the rest is going to change. The problem is that you don’t know with certainty what is going to change. For example, war. Did we know that Russia was going to invade Ukraine? Of course not. We know, for example, if there’s a group of children who are 1-year-old, we know how many are going to be there in 10 years with pretty good certainty. But do we know that in a country that is overrun, can we figure out what’s happening in Haiti now, for example. But I think that by and large, we understand how economies function. We do not have control over these more difficult events, obviously.  

Smith: Extending that idea of the fundamental forces, do you think that economists have a good understanding of the fundamental forces that control the economy? Or is that search as in physics sort of still ongoing, that there might be more to be discovered?  

Goldin: I would say that part of me says we know a lot and part of me says that I’m humbled and would say there are things that we do have to learn more about. Many of those have to do with how individuals make their own set of decisions. We see that in the US today. Many of us do not fully understand how it is that some large sections of America can support a candidate who, to us seems to be undermining the democratic process. How can they support a candidate who seems to not care about the votes of the majority? In that sense, we need to sometimes be more of an ethnographer and less of an economist. Sometimes I feel that I would learn more by embedding myself in a place that isn’t Cambridge mass to understand how the economy functions.  

Smith: We discussed how you thought you might be out in the field as a biologist, but you found your way to economics and historical economics. What drove you in that direction?  

Goldin: When I was an undergraduate, like many undergraduates, you realised that you don’t know a lot. I went to Bronx High School of Science. I came to Cornell University thinking that I knew a lot about a small field, which was bacteriology. When I got to Cornell, I realised that there were many fields that you’re not introduced to when you’re in high school. Political theory, for example, anthropology, philosophy, and economics. I never knew any economics when I was at Bronx High School of Science.  

Smith: Just as an aside, one should mention that Bronx High School of Science has been a great generator of researchers of great importance for a very long time. What was it that was so magical about that particular place, apart from the intake? Because I know it’s very competitive to get into.  

Goldin: Part of it was where I would’ve gone otherwise. I would’ve gone to a place called James Monroe High School then at that time was, I believe the largest high school in the United States. It had 10,000 kids, and it was in the South Bronx. That would’ve been a difficult place to go be and learn. What made science magical in part was the fact that we had a nice new building. In part because we had very nice, able and smart teachers. But what really made it special with the students. I was there with other students who had passed this test and who were just a group of wonderful, nerdy kids.  

Smith: So the nerdy kid finds themselves at Cornell discovering all these other unknown.  

Goldin: Right, discovering lots of other things. Somehow the way economics was taught to me by someone named Alfred Kahan, who called himself Fred Kahn, just attracted me immensely. Fred Kahn taught a portion of economics called industrial organisation and also regulations. When I was at Cornell, I specialised in industrial organisation and regulation. When I went to the University of Chicago, I went to Chicago to study that subject. I went there because there were phenomenal faculty who did work in industrial organisation and people who study industrial organisation are interested in product markets and how stuff is made, priced, delivered, the variety of goods, how we regulate utilities, why we regulate utilities. Of course that’s become of enormous interest recently with the internet. Those were the areas that I was interested in. In some sense. I just liked economics.  

Smith: Then what turned you into a digger in the archives? A historical economist.  

Goldin: When I was at Cornell, the other field that I did a lot of work in was history. In particular foreign policy with a great professor named Walter Lafe. Much of what I’m saying about why I took certain courses, why I like certain subjects points to people, people make these subjects special. I know that every day when I walk into a classroom that I am representing a field and that I am interpreting a field, I am diffusing the knowledge in the field. If I do it well, I will convince people. If I don’t do it well, they’re going to walk away. For me, Walter Leber, Fred Kahn convinced me of these two fields. When I got to graduate school, I also discovered that there was a connection between those two subjects. That was through someone named Robert Fogel, also a Nobel Prize laureate. 

I took IO with George Stigler, a Nobel Prize laureate. Of course these Nobel Prizes were awarded to these people long after I took their courses. But Robert Fogel was so fascinating and so interested in issues in economic history and figuring out why things happened. What was the importance of the railroads? Was the US south poor all the time? When did it become poor? If it wasn’t poor all the time, what was the plight of black Americans? Questions that I always knew would be interesting suddenly became questions that I could explore and I could explore them in archives.  

Smith: How exciting. Questioning the status quo. How did things come to be like this? Has it always been like this? Wonderful fundamental questions, which sometimes one ignores in the kind of maelstrom of everything else that’s going on,  

Goldin: Right? But what Robert Fogel taught us was that you could confront these questions by taking the models of the economist. These are difficult questions. If you ask us, he did the railroads cause American economic growth? Or how much did they cause? How could you answer that big question? You can do it by expressing it in a somewhat different way. You can do it by expressing it in a counterfactual. If the railroads didn’t exist, what would the growth rate of the US economy have been? How can you do that? That takes us down a different path of how could you figure out how much longer it would’ve taken to ship goods if you didn’t have the railroad? Where would the goods have been produced?  

Smith: Fascinating. So equipped with the right technique, you can dissect the question. The description you gave of yourself when you walk into a classroom was really beautiful. The idea that you are the standard bearer for diffusing this knowledge to your students. Of course it can apply to teachers of any subject at every level. It emphasises the enormous importance of teachers generally and the responsibilities and possibilities of being a teacher. What was it in particular about Fred Khan, for instance, that made him such an amazing teacher?  

Goldin: I think that it was the fact that he would come into a class and know that he was the standard bearer for that. That he had something that he wanted to convey and he was going to convey it in any way he could. I remember clearly that he ran out of room on a blackboard and the floor in the auditorium was filled with dust and he just got down on his hands and knees and drew in the dust.  

Smith: That’s amazing. I can imagine students crowding around to see what was on the floor. 

Goldin: I think part of it is that if you really believe in what you’re saying, then you will try very hard or you should try very hard to diffuse the knowledge in a way that convinces everybody. If you are walking into a classroom and you’re doing elementary algebra, you don’t really believe that it’s important for your students, but you’re not going to have the same energy. If you do have that level of energy, I would be very pleased. But most people don’t have that level of energy to teach a subject unless they believe very strongly in it. Which is perhaps why preachers, televangelists in particular, are so good at what they do because they really believe it and they really believe that if other people believed it, their lives would be better off. In some sense, one has to walk into a classroom if you are telling your class something that you believe in and be your own televangelist.  

Smith: That connects with something that I’ve come to realise about all the Nobel Prize laureates I’ve been speaking to over the years, which is that it seems blindingly obvious, but it actually I think is important, is that they really believe in what they’re doing. They are truly interested in the questions they’re asking because it’s quite easy to sort of fake an interest or even convince yourself that you are interested in something when you’re trying to get something done. That’s very different from having a genuine interest, which just keeps you going and keeps you awake and just drives you.  

Goldin: That’s right. It’s endless curiosity, but it’s also curiosity about something in particular. I find that I’m curious about an extraordinarily wide range of subjects. Most of them have to do with economics or education or the labour force. But I’m curious about many things and you can’t follow all of those threads. You have to limit yourself somewhat.  


Brilliant: Adam, Claudia Goldin was clearly interested in a lot of subjects, but what area did she focus on that ultimately led to her prize?  

Smith: That was for her work on the engagement of married women in the US in the labour market. I suppose she could have asked many questions because she was interested in so many things. But she was looking for a question of importance where she could access data that nobody had seen before that would shed light on the answer to the fundamental question that she was asking, which is why are things as they are, why is it that now about 50% of women are employed globally?  

Brilliant: She sort of looked at this from the perspective of both a historian and an economist. What did she find out?  

Smith: She revealed that much to many people’s surprise, married women’s involvement in the labour market had not increased linearly with time. That in 1820 or so, about 50% of married women were actively involved in the labour market. Then by the beginning of the 20th century, that had dropped well below 20% and then it gradually increased and now it’s back to about where it was in 1820 or maybe a little better. There’s this very dramatic u-shape curve rather than the straight line that some people thought was going to come out.  

Brilliant: Did she find an explanation for the dramatic u-shape?  

Smith: Yes, broadly it’s you know, supply and demand in the labour market and all the other factors that come to play. This is where she balances her work as a historian, digging out the data from these sources where it’s not easy to get the information with the economic theory, looking at how much women were involved in child rearing labour law, the employment practices of the employers, and then also the advent of technology and what effect that had so many different factors coming together to influence this very complicated picture.  

Brilliant: What were the implications of the work?  

Smith: Claudia Goldin talks about this herself very interestingly. It’s worth noting that this was a great time to be publishing these results. In the seventies, there was a lot of interest in these issues. It was a poignant moment. Let’s listen to her talk about these implications.  


Goldin: The 1970s in the US and in other parts of the world were periods of uprising, periods of democratisation periods in which in the US in the 1960s, then building up to the 1970s, the civil rights movement, also the women’s rights movement. The work that I was doing was also of incredible importance because of what was going on at that moment that people were questioning if labour force participation has gone up so much, why are we still only earning 59 cents on the dollar? Some of the questions that I was answering through history were questions that were incredibly relevant at that moment.  

Smith: It’s trying to summarise everything in two briefer way, but what would you say the main implications are for current employment practices of all that work?  

Goldin: I think that what’s important in my work is that we can look back and we can say there has been enormous progress. People are generally at some point in time, often frustrated by a lack of change in their own lives or what they see as changes in other people’s lives. They don’t realise how much progress there has been. Many people who read my work will write to me and say thank you. Because now I see how much progress there was and I was blind to that before. Yet we have to ask, even though there’s been so much progress, why is gender still an important division in the labour market? For that, there have been many answers over the course of history. For example, there was a time (if we take the US) when although women did better in high school and had higher graduation rates in high school, they went to college and graduated from college at much lower rates than men.  

When we look at what they were doing in the labour force, it’s not surprising that they’re not occupying various professional positions. We can see over time that many of the differences have disappeared. Women do not have lower levels of education. In fact, they have higher levels of education. We have to now confront the question, why does gender still matter in the labour force? In a somewhat different way. In some sense, the clouds have parted the clouds that would’ve been these large differences that existed. The clouds have parted. We could see more clearly that many of the differences are differences about what women and men do in their own homes. Not only is it what goes on in their homes, but it’s reinforced by what goes on in the labour market. The simple notion is that if one earns an enormously large amount more by working more hours or by being on call and you have children to take care of then one member of the family will take a job that is more flexible and be on call at home and the other one will take the job that’s more greedy and be on call at the office.   

In some sense, what we see now that the clouds have parted is that even though of course there’s still problems in the labour force, there’s still bad actors, for example, there’s still this word that we throw around discrimination. By and large, most of the differences are due to the fact that women step back and men step forward in their job. This means that men lose out in terms of family and women lose out a bit in terms of career. The point is that there’s both gender equality and couple equity. When we give up couple equity, we widen gender inequality. I think that that’s how many of us think about what’s going on in terms of gender in the labour market. Now there’s no question it’s more complicated. 

Smith: In the context of the societal changes going on, the confusion that many people feel about the current state of democracy. Are you hopeful about what will happen to gender equality in the labour market?  

Goldin: I can see that some countries that have support for public goods, like subsidized childcare that have good support for the elderly, that those countries do have lower levels of gender inequality. But in a diverse nation like the United States, we have to understand why it is that for a very long time there’s been a group of individuals who want reproductive rights. Until we listen to them and understand we are going to be a very divided nation.  

Smith: I must let you go. But I wanted to finish by asking whether this extra attention that is focused on you with the award of the Nobel Prize. There’s already been so much attention focused on you as the first female professor at Harvard to get tenure in economics. For instance, whether this additional, I don’t know what to call it, burden or accolade is making life difficult or you can take it all in your stride.  

Goldin: I have said from the day I received the Nobel, that it wasn’t just mine and that it’s been magnified thousands and thousands of times. For that, I will take whatever burdens there are, I receive many, many messages, thousands. I have no idea what the numbers are of thank you for what I do. Not just because it illuminates the past, but because it validates and vindicates and emboldens the individuals and their work. For that, I am very proud.  

Smith: That is a beautiful and very important point to stop on. Thank you very much.  

Goldin: Indeed. Thank you Adam. It’s always a pleasure to talk to you.  


Brilliant: You just heard Nobel Prize Conversations. If you’d like to learn more about Claudia Goldin, you can go to where you’ll find a wealth of information about the prizes and the people behind the discoveries.

Nobel Prize Conversations is a podcast series with Adam Smith, a co-production of Filt and Nobel Prize Outreach. The producer for this episode was Karin Svensson. The editorial team also includes Andrew Hart, Olivia Lundqvist, and me, Claire Brilliant. Music by Epidemic sound. If you’d like to continue with the theme of women in economic sciences, then check out our episode with 2019 laureate Esther Duflo. You can find previous seasons and conversations on Acast or wherever you listen to podcasts. Thanks for listening. 

Nobel Prize Conversations is produced in cooperation with Fundación Ramón Areces.

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