for, | November 23, 2021

Why the Highest Paying Jobs So Rarely Go to Women

A conversation with Harvard economist and historian Claudia Goldin about “greedy' work.

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ALISON BEARD: Welcome to the HBR IdeaCast from Harvard Business Review. I’m Alison Beard.

About 10 years ago, I was at a big women’s leadership conference, full of a lot of high powered female executives and academics. We were put into small discussion groups and told to talk about why more women weren’t in the C-suite and what we could do about it. I was a mom of toddlers at the time, struggling to balance work with family in a pretty low power editorial job. So at one point I asked, I mean, do women really even want to be CEOs?

Everyone’s mouths dropped open. They stared at me. They were a aghast that I would question women’s ambition in this way. But what I met was the gold standard for a CEO was someone, usually a man who lived and breathed his job, who worked 14 hour, days, and weekends, who was on call 24/7, who traveled constantly, who thrived on perpetual stress. Yes, they got paid tons of money and got lots of accolades for doing all that, but did we really aspire to it?

I didn’t explain myself very well and definitely did not win over the crowd. One professor even mentioned my comment when she presented our thoughts to the broader group, which meant a whole room of women gasping and my face turning bright red.

But the issue that I was pointing to is one that our guests today has been studying for a long time. She calls it “greedy” work. Jobs that pay well, but demand all of your time. Thereby eliminating a lot of people, usually caregivers, who are typically women, from contention. She’s here today to explain how it’s contributed to both incoming inequality and the gender pay gap and what we can do about it.

Claudia Goldin is a historian and labor economist at Harvard University. She’s the author of the book, Career and Family, Women’s Century Long Journey Toward Equity. She also wrote the HBR Big Idea article The Problem with Greedy Work. Claudia so happy to chat with you today.

CLAUDIA GOLDIN: I’m pleased to be here, Alison.

ALISON BEARD: You have looked at the evolving dynamics of gender and labor across the decades now, when do the phenomenon of greedy work start to come into play?

CLAUDIA GOLDIN: Well, I think greedy work is probably pretty old. And so greedy work is really simply defined as a job that pays disproportionately more on a per hour basis when someone puts in a greater number of hours, a lot of hours, or has less control over those hours. It could be a rush job, a demanding client who calls at 11:00 PM, a supervisor who ask that the worker give up a vacation or a weekend.

And the other critical aspect to it is that the worker is agreeing to do it at that wage. It is quite simply disproportionate pay for long hours. There’s also another group of jobs that we think of as up or out jobs as in academia or as in making a partner in a law firm or an accounting firm. And those are a little bit different because you’re putting in longer hours and you’re getting the reward after a certain period of time.

ALISON BEARD: How has this focus on greedy work or growth of greedy work affected women’s careers? What have you found quantitatively and qualitatively in your studies?

CLAUDIA GOLDIN: So it could affect both men and women. There’s no reason why. I know a lot of women who work long hours and I’m probably talking to one of them and you’re probably talking to one of them. The issue is has to do with something that you just refer to, which is children. You refer to the fact that you raised that issue at that meeting after you had children, because it suddenly came to your mind that there was something else. And that if you worked 14 hours a day, your children would not be alive for long. They would not be very happy.

ALISON BEARD: Not without good help or a supportive husband.

CLAUDIA GOLDIN: Well, but that’s a very, very good point that couples be they heterosexual or same sex couples who have children who have some other caregiving responsibility. It is almost impossible to contract out all of that.

So the issue is that when you have a couple who have children, someone is going to have to take the job that has more flexibility. Someone is going to have to take the job in which they are the ones who are on the job, but also on call at home. And someone else can take the job in the couple who’s on the job, but on call in the office. And so in general, the reason that greedy work is going to impact women more than men, and it needn’t, is because women are disproportionately the ones who are on call at home, even though they’re at work. And so gender inequality is actually the flip side of couple inequity for heterosexual couples.

ALISON BEARD: And how is this phenomenon different from the other ways in which women get blocked from climbing the corporate ladder, both those blatant and subtle biases that women feel in the workplace?

CLAUDIA GOLDIN: They’re different in the sense that we could get rid of those subtle biases. I think of them as the cockroaches in the workplace. It’s like a New York city apartment. There are always cockroaches. And let us say that we can go and call in best exterminator possible, there’s still going to be some cockroaches, but we’re going to get rid of the big ones. Even if we did that, we would still have this issue. And it’s in some sense, always been with us, but we never really focused on it because we had bigger cockroaches. And I’m not saying that all biases have gone away, or all aspects of sexual harassment have gone away, or all hiring issues have gone away because we know they haven’t. But we can see even more clearly now that the big issue for a couple with caregiving responsibilities is that women step down so that    men can step up.

ALISON BEARD: Do you get the sense that this pandemic and the way people have both changed their work lives and also begun to rethink their work lives? Has that caused any shift in how people think about the value of greedy work or whether it should be valued as it is?

CLAUDIA GOLDIN: The problem is the price of flexibility. So if I go into the workplace and I’m hired, and I say, I would like to be able to leave anytime that the school nurse calls me, or I would like to be able to leave early if my parents need to go to the cardiologist, my employer might say, Well, that’s a slightly different job and it pays a lot less. So the issue isn’t so much, whether flexibility exists, the question is the price. I’ll give you another example to show you where our pandemic may have a really big silver lining. There have been many jobs for which travel, long distance travel is required. And many firms, particularly in accounting and consulting several years ago, in fact, more than a decade ago, realized that they were called bleeding women, as they said, because they were requiring too much travel.

So they said, “You don’t have to travel every week. You only have to travel every other week.” Well, that would still mean that many women wouldn’t be able to do it. They wouldn’t be able to have what they considered to be a reliable backup. Well, what has happened during the pandemic is that we’ve learned that you could do the handshake in Tokyo without actually touching the person. And the notion that you have to be there fit basically to look the person in the eye and to have them trust you seems to have gone by the by.

ALISON BEARD: Yeah. Do you get the sense that these very fast paced, high pressure companies that have always required long hours, full commitment, that on-call nature of work? I’m thinking of law firms, technology companies, investment banks. Do you get the sense that they are rethinking how they operate and that there will be more emphasis on getting the job done as opposed to the hours you put in?

CLAUDIA GOLDIN: I certainly would hope so. But I do know that before the pandemic, I think lots of people talked about this, that the younger group of investment bankers, that the younger group of accountants, particularly the guys who would never have questioned long hours turned around and they said, “I don’t think that this is the life I want to lead.” So I would hope and pray that couples, and here, heterosexual or same sex couples, then match into the manager’s office, the HR office and say, “This is the life I want and this is the life that I will work for. I will work hard for it, but I’m not going to work on weekends. I’m not going to work during the dinner hour of my family. I’m not going to work during vacation.”

So it’s interesting. Some time ago, Sandy Moose, who’s an amazing person, who was there at the beginning of BCG, heard me say things like this. And she said, “Still rings in my ears. Sandy said that when she was at BCG, and she has retired, that when a client would call up one of the associates and ask for something at all hours, that she would, as a senior member of management, call them and say, “They are our associates, not your servants.”

ALISON BEARD: Well, it seems like you’re saying we needed not just the women to revolt at the idea of greedy work, but for the men to join them too. And then for them to get protection from I’m above.

CLAUDIA GOLDIN: Absolutely. None of what I say is going to succeed unless men are on board. And when workers decide that they want change, the people above them should respond.

ALISON BEARD: So let talk a little bit more about flexible jobs. It seems like you think that even the most demanding jobs can be made more flexible.

CLAUDIA GOLDIN: To some extent. There are some jobs that are 24/7 jobs. There was a time when I would’ve said, and I would say it now that the president of the United States should not have a flexible job.

ALISON BEARD: Yes. I’d agree. I’d agree.

CLAUDIA GOLDIN: But by and large, yes, just about any job can come with some flexibility. And we’re not talking about jobs in which you work 20 hours a week. We’re talking about jobs for which you can work… Many flexible jobs are jobs for which people work 50 hours a week. But if they want to be home at six o’clock for dinner, they can be. If they need to leave at 11:00 AM on a Thursday, they can do that.

So flexibility means many things. It’s sometimes the ability to work predictable hours, and it’s sometimes the ability to not work at a particular hour. It’s often not being on call. It’s not having to jump when someone tells you to jump, it’s the ability to have dinner with your family as Cheryl Sandberg famously would always say that she would be home for dinner every night. I mean, she’s in the C-suite.

ALISON BEARD: What do you think about how transparent we, men or women, need to be about using that flexibility in this era of greedy work? Is it okay to say, Hey, I’m leaving to pick up my kids rather than just saying I’m not available at this time.

CLAUDIA GOLDIN: Yeah. It’s interesting. Let me just say that as many people know, the word transparency today generally means knowing what others in your firm earn, but you maintain being honest.


CLAUDIA GOLDIN: But I understand what you mean. It’s interesting in my life, in my office, when someone says, “I have to leave the meeting, I have to go pick up the kids.” It’s always, “Well, of course. Do that.” If I said, I have to leave the meeting right now because I’m having a facial…

ALISON BEARD: I’m going to go watch those soap operas and eat some bon bons.

CLAUDIA GOLDIN: So people know I don’t have kids. So I would have to say, “I have to go home because Pico, who’s my dog needs me.” And people would then say, “Oh yeah, of course. Bye.”

ALISON BEARD: I love it. And what about people who are choosing to do just that, have more flexible jobs, step away from greedy work because they want to train for a marathon or they have a knitting business on the side? Do you see that as an increasing phenomenon of this generation six or group six?

CLAUDIA GOLDIN: Yeah. So just go to Silicon Valley, that’s what people do. One of the oddities about my findings, my work is that tech occupations are among the most flexible. And they’re very flexible… I mean, it’s often the case that tech people don’t have to work together. They’re very good substitutes for each other in certain bundles. So you write code, I write code, we link it together in some manner. And so in fact, tech occupations, and tech occupations are all over. In every single office and in every single industry, there are tech occupations. And those individuals are, “It’s nice out, let’s hit the mountains. Let’s go on our mountain bikes.”

ALISON BEARD: So what do you think the practical solution is here for people, couples that want to earn the kind of living that these greedy work firms offer? Clients are willing to pay, the companies are willing to pay, so how can you not take the job?

CLAUDIA GOLDIN: Remember in supply and demand, if you shift the functions, the equilibrium is going to change. If we look at various occupations, one of the examples I use is pediatrics. Pediatricians make a lot of money. Okay. They’re very well trained. They also love their children because they love all children. So pediatricians then decided that having group practices was much better because that gave them more flexibility. Either they asked for it or it happened organically. I have a very good example of pharmacy as well. So there are ways of voting with your feet and voting with your voice.

So let’s say we’re thinking about lawyers and both of the lawyers could work at a pretty well paid boutique law firm, a smaller law firm, or one of them could work at the big ticket law firm. And they would have couple inequity. Well, they have to ask themselves, how much is it worth? I don’t ever claim to have solutions. The first thing one has to do is figure out what the problem is. And if we thought all along that with the cockroaches and we got rid of the cockroaches, we still have a problem and we have to figure out what it is. And I think that we know what it is.

ALISON BEARD: I love the example of the pediatricians and the pharmacists because it’s almost like an entire profession of both men and women banding together and saying, Hey, let’s figure out a way where all of us can get paid a really good amount, not an insane amount, but a really good amount. And all of us can have a really nice lifestyle too. We can have enough time with our families, etc. So is that maybe what it takes in industries like finance and the legal profession too?

CLAUDIA GOLDIN: I think probably. I mean, the interesting thing in pharmacy is that it was completely organic. This was an organic change that occurred not just because of the rise of corporations like CVS and Walgreens and Rite Aid, but it was also because of the standardization of medicines. And it was also because of technologies that allowed pharmacists to have complete information about individuals without really knowing the individuals. So your accountant should be able to do the same thing.

ALISON BEARD: And so if you were advising corporate leaders today, what would you tell them about how to shift the way they think about work and hours spent and money paid?

CLAUDIA GOLDIN: Well, I don’t think I have to tell them anything. I think that everything that I’m saying, they know. Number one. Number two, I don’t talk to them.

ALISON BEARD: But if you were, if you had 10 CEOs in a room, Jamie Dimon…

CLAUDIA GOLDIN: That’s the one person I have been in the same room with. Yeah.

ALISON BEARD: Okay. So if you’re advising Jamie Dimon who runs JPMorgan Chase, expects his investment bankers to be on call, probably wants him to start traveling again, definitely wants him in the office, what would you tell him?

CLAUDIA GOLDIN: I would say to him that, Jamie you’re the very smart guy and you know that. There are ways of creating teams of substitutes so that your investment bankers are better substitutes for each other. There is a price at which someone is going to shift.

ALISON BEARD: The other question I have is I think because I live in the United States and you do as well, I come with that cultural mindset, is this international phenomenon greedy work contributing to the gender pay gap?

CLAUDIA GOLDIN: I mean, other countries have, for a host of different reasons, decided to have better safety nets and also considerably better subsidized care for children. There’s a sense that the community has children, the nation has children and the nation lifts up children and parents. We simply don’t have that.

ALISON BEARD: And we keep coming back to this idea of children, and that’s really what it gets down to, caregiving. That’s why women step back from greedy work.


ALISON BEARD: Straight up. Just yes, it is.

CLAUDIA GOLDIN: That’s right.

ALISON BEARD: Yeah. You did talk about tenure track, academia being one category of white collar greedy work and that’s your own profession. So how do you personally fit into all of this? How did you manage your own career as a female economist?

CLAUDIA GOLDIN: Without thinking about it actually. I don’t have children, so I was never faced with some of these very, very difficult issues. I did have one wonderful dog who suffered when I was an assistant professor.

ALISON BEARD: I know. I wish I’m back in the office now and I wish I was home with my cat. Claudia, thanks so much for joining me today.

CLAUDIA GOLDIN: It’s been my pleasure, Alison.

ALISON BEARD: That’s Claudia Goldin, a Harvard historian and labor economist. She’s the author of the book, Career and Family, Women’s Century Long Journey Toward Equity. She also wrote the HBR Big Idea article “The Problem with Greedy Work”. This episode was produced by Mary Dooe, we get technical help from Rob Eckhardt. Thanks for listening to the HBR IdeaCast. I’m Alison Beard.