The Harvard professor is only the third woman to win the award.
The jury said Prof Goldin, who in 1990 became the first woman to be tenured at the Harvard economics department, received the award “for having advanced our understanding of women's labour market outcomes”.
It said her research reveals the causes of change, as well as the main sources of the remaining gender gap.
“Understanding women’s role in the labour market is important for society,” said Jakob Svensson, chair of the Committee for the Prize in Economic Sciences.
“Thanks to Claudia Goldin’s groundbreaking research, we now know much more about the underlying factors and which barriers may need to be addressed in the future.”
Her 1990 book Understanding the Gender Gap: An Economic History of American Women was a hugely influential examination of the roots of wage inequality.
She has followed up with studies on the impact of the contraceptive pill on women's career and marriage decisions, women's surnames after marriage as a social indicator and the reasons why women are now the majority of undergraduates.
Prof Goldin, 77, does not offer solutions, but her research allows policymakers to tackle the entrenched problem, said Randi Hjalmarsson, a member of the prize committee.
“She explains the source of the gap and how it’s changed over time and how it varies with the stage of development. And therefore, there is no single policy,” Mr Hjalmarsson said.
“So it’s a complicated policy question because if you don’t know the underlying reason, a certain policy won’t work.”
However, “by finally understanding the problem and calling it by the right name, we will be able to pave a better out forward,” said Mr Hjalmarsson, who added that Prof Goldin's discoveries have “vast societal implications”.
Hans Ellegren, secretary-general of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, in Stockholm, who announced the award, said Prof Goldin “was surprised and very, very glad” to receive it.
Globally, about 50 per cent of women participate in the labour market compared to 80 per cent of men, but women earn less and are less likely to reach the top of the career ladder, it noted.
Former Federal Reserve Chair Ben Bernanke, Douglas Diamond and Philip Dybvig won the prize last year for their research into banking failures that helped shape the aggressive US response to the 2007-2008 financial crisis.
Of all the Nobels, the Economics Prize has the fewest number of women laureates, with just two previous winners since it was first awarded in 1969 – Elinor Ostrom in 2009 and Esther Duflo in 2019.
The Economics Award is not one of the original prizes for science, literature and peace created in the will of dynamite inventor and businessman Alfred Nobel, but a later addition established and funded by Sweden's central bank in 1968, sometimes earning it the moniker of “false Nobel”.