The Nobel Prize-winning theory on why the gender gap is still a thing

Hi! I’m Lisa, responsible for communications at Datawrapper. Today, I bring you four line charts and two bar charts about men and women.

Since 1969, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences has awarded a Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences. Ninety men have had the honor so far. Two women have also won — but only together with men. The first woman to win the prize solo was announced this Monday: The Royal Academy chose economic historian Claudia Goldin “for having advanced our understanding of women’s labour market outcomes.”

So what’s up with “women’s labour market outcomes”? Is the gender gap still a thing?

Yes, it's still a thing — even though since 2022, more women than men in the U.S. hold a bachelor's degree or higher, according to Pew Research.

The good news is that the gap is closing. More women than ten or twenty years ago lead states and companies, and sit in parliaments and on advisory boards.

But while women are catching up in society overall, the gap is widening within age cohorts in the U.S.:

Why? A big chunk of the explanation is that in 2022, 66% of these women aged 35–44 had a child at home. "Historically, much of the gender gap in earnings could be explained by differences in education and occupational choices," the Nobel Prize committee wrote. "However, Goldin has shown that the bulk of this earnings difference is now between men and women in the same occupation, and that it largely arises with the birth of the first child."


That's not just because women in the U.S. earn less money after a child is born — it's also because men earn more (and often have to) after that happens. Childless men between 35 and 44 years old make only 84% of the money that same-aged fathers make.

Here's Goldin explaining her theory about that phenomenon in an interview from last year (emphasis mine):

The employee who is willing to work at all hours — in the evenings, on weekends, on vacations, and is on-call at the office — gets the bigger rewards. When these rewards are disproportionate to the time put in, meaning that doubling the time, more than doubles the earnings, we get “greedy work.” [...]

If an individual has children or some other family responsibilities, someone must be on-call at home, even if that person has a job. The “on-call at home” person will take a position that has more flexibility and is less demanding and, in consequence, pays less even on a per hour basis.

Women are generally the ones who are on-call at home. That’s couple inequity. [...]

Why can’t dual-career families share the joys and duties of parenting equally? They could, but if they did, they would be leaving money on the table, often quite a lot. The 50-50 couple might be happier, but it would be poorer.

Happiness, the gender pay gap and couple equity — it's all very much related. “We’re never going to have gender equality until we also have couple equity,” Goldin said when interviewed about the Nobel Prize.

To read more about Goldin's many findings, I recommend the press release of the Nobel Prize committee and the easy-to-read explanation with beautiful illustrations (PDF) they put together. The Economist has another good explainer (paywalled, unfortunately).

On the gender pay gap, I learned a lot in these excellent articles by Our World in Data and Pew Research.

I hope I could share a few new thoughts in this Weekly Chart with you. Next week, I'm looking forward to reading the first Weekly Chart of the newest member of our support team, Michi. We'll see you then!