Women have shorter commutes than men—and it could be hurting their careers

Rush hour.
Rush hour.
Image: Reuters/Vivek Prakash
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Commuting can be detrimental to health and happiness, eating into time spent with family or pursuing other life-enhancing activities, like exercise. But analysis from the Institute of Fiscal Studies, a UK microeconomic research body, found a link between commuting and the gender pay gap which suggests that if you’re willing and able to spend longer getting to the office, the payoff could be significant.

The idea is based on comparing two separate sets of data, and making some speculations.

First, data on the UK from the Office for National Statistics found that men on average take longer to get to work than women. The statistics, released this month, found that men accounted for 65% of commutes lasting an hour or more. Conversely, 55% of short commutes lasting 15 minutes or less were undertaken by women. The IFS researchers referred to the percentage difference in the amount of time that men versus women travel as the “gender commuting gap.”

They wondered if this commuting gap was one of the reasons why men are paid more on average than women, even when they’re doing the same work. Analysis of the reasons behind the global gender pay gap has highlighted the fact that women and men have parity early in their careers, but that starting a family impacts women disproportionately. Where men’s wages continue to rise after they have kids, women’s rise less steeply and never achieve the same average level.

The IFS therefore combined time spent commuting with years since the birth of a person’s first child. They found that having a baby had a huge impact on the gap between women’s and men’s commute times, with women commuting for much less time.

While acknowledging that this might not be a direct causal link, the IFS speculated that women are likely making different choices once they have kids. They may be prioritizing shorter commutes, working from home, or choosing jobs that allow them to work flexibly. This, in turn, could be limiting their career and pay prospects, because it cuts down the chances of them finding a job that’s perfect for them, or an employer that can offer a really competitive salary. “If women take work closer to home because of caring responsibilities, they may be less likely to find a job well-matched to their skills or with a high-paying employer,” the IFS researchers wrote. “When setting wages, employers may also be able to exploit the fact that mothers are only comparing those wage offers to a relatively local set of alternative employers.”

Of course, much of this is about choice. Women may make choices—like working part time, or closer to home—that allow them to spend more time with their kids, or be there for school pick-ups. That might improve their quality of life and make them happier than traveling far away to a job. Men, meanwhile, can find themselves under even greater pressure to work and earn once they have children, because they’re sometimes the sole breadwinner for a family. In reality, those decisions are often made somewhat by default: Women’s careers are more likely than men’s to take a back-seat, and women tend to take on more caring work and household tasks.

Long commutes can be painful, and, for many, it’s not a choice. But for those who do choose them, it might be something of a privilege, especially when it’s linked to a much bigger field of opportunity. The IFS is looking further into how commuting is being changed by childcare policies, remote working, and changes in childcare norms.