Summary of the 8th Kenneth J. Arrow Lecture: Career and Family: Collision or Confluence?

Today, more than ever, women are graduating college, having career ambitions, and also having children. In the 8th Kenneth J. Arrow Lecture, the issue of what happens when there are more kids and more careers was discussed by Claudia Goldin, Henry Lee Professor of Economics at Harvard University, after an introduction by Alondra Nelson, Dean of Social Science in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at Columbia University. Following the lecture, Christopher Flinn, NYU, and Joseph Stiglitz, Columbia University, served as discussants. The event was hosted by the Center on Global Economics Governance and the Program for Economic Research, in collaboration with Columbia University Press, the Initiative for Policy Dialogue, and the Gender and Public Policy Specialization at SIPA as part of the Kenneth J. Arrow Lecture Series, which highlights economists whose work builds on Kenneth Arrow’s scholarship and last impact on the field of economics.   

Professor Goldin opened her lecture by discussing why the twin goals of career and family are in greater conflict today than ever before. Firstly, 45% of all women are now college graduates, which is a significant increase from previous generations. Second, birth rates are increasing, as well as the ambitions of college graduate women to have careers. Goldin then looked at what some of the current available options are for trying to reduce this conflict. She noted a number of low hanging fruit that are considered potential solutions, like “fixing the managers” by making them less biased, “fixing the infants” by expanding family leave, or “fixing the daddies” by giving paternal leave. Despite these options being considered relatively easy solutions, they have not been particularly successful and therefore Professor Goldin stated that to really reduce the conflict you will actually need to fix the organizations by reducing the cost of temporal flexibility. By this it is meant that there should be more “puzzle pieces” within organizations, where increased workers are substitutes rather than exclusively complements, so that there is someone else at work who can take over responsibilities when a parent would need to leave work for their child.

Professor Goldin then discussed the specific data she looked at to come to this understanding about the relationship between career and family for college graduate women. She split women into five cohorts to examine the data:


Graduated from Four-Year College


Characterization of Desired or Achieved Family and Work Path

Cohort One



Family or Career

Cohort Two



Job then Family

Cohort Three



Family then Job

Cohort Four



Career then Family

Cohort Five



Career and Family

In looking at this data, Professor Goldin defined family success as having a child and career success as having earnings at least at the 25th percentile of the men that are working full-time, full-year in the same brackets and these conditions must hold for at least three years in each five year period. She found that success for both career and family increase by cohort as well as by age within each cohort. Since there is higher success for older women, Professor Goldin then discussed what can be done to increase success for younger women by looking at gender earnings gaps in different occupational groups. She split occupations into two groups, one comprising business, finance, law, and health with high levels of self-employment and one comprising science and technology, as well as health with low levels of self-employment. The wage gaps are considerably lower in the second group, which Professor Goldin argues is due to the higher temporal flexibility in science and technology jobs.

She used the example of pharmacists to illustrate her point. Due to the nature of a job as a pharmacist, coworkers are a perfect puzzle piece for each other since information is transferred from one to the other with perfect fidelity using information technology systems. Therefore, if one pharmacist cannot come into work, a second pharmacist can do the exact same job without having any issues of information asymmetry. She noted, however, that there will always be positions for which the cost of temporal flexibility will be too high and will therefore never be able to improve the ability of women to achieve both family and career success within those occupations.

Professor Goldin concluded by saying that women have sought career and family in large numbers since at least the 1970s and the most recent cohorts are the largest group ever. The success rate of their predecessors at younger ages has been sufficiently poor to start a call to action, but only by reducing the cost of temporal flexibility can gender gaps in earnings and occupation be sufficiently narrowed and the twin goals of family and career be achievable by a larger fraction of women and men.

In his comments Christopher Flinn noted the need to potentially consider the interaction between men and women in the determination of the ability of women to achieve career and family success. He also discussed the interrelationship between how job decisions can affect your marriage partner, while your marriage partner can also affect your future job decisions and therefore this feedback might also need to be taken into account.

Joseph Stiglitz then began by reading comments prepared by Kenneth Arrow on Professor Goldin’s work since he was unable to attend. Arrow noted the issue of feasibility in increasing temporal flexibility despite the fact that empirically, Professor Goldin makes it clear that this is a potential policy solution for decreasing the conflict between career and family. Finally, Professor Stiglitz made his own remarks, during which he commented on the likelihood of discrimination’s role in this relationship between gender, career, and family, since there is already clear evidence of racial discrimination in the labor force.


- Samantha Weinberg, MPA '16