Commuting: The Real Reason Women Don't Lean In

Commuting: The Real Reason Women Don't Lean In

By Meghan Walsh

Young business executives standing in a train (sepia)
SourceKim Steele/Getty


Because here’s one basic reason for our workforce disparity.

By Meghan Walsh

It takes Kristel Fritz 90 minutes by train to get from her home in San Jose to the talent agency where she works in San Francisco. On days she has to pick the two kids up from day care, she’s out of the house before 5:30 a.m. to get into the office early. Come afternoon, the 31-year-old has to leave by 3:30 to make sure she gets to the day care before it closes at 6 p.m. If the train is delayed? Every 15 minutes she’s late earns her a $20 charge per kid.

Fritz is fortunate: She has help. Her husband drops the kids in the morning and grandma is available if something comes up. But even that hasn’t stopped her from turning down jobs in the past because the commute made working and raising a family a logistical nightmare. 

Commuting is four times worse for women than men.

A number of studies amassed over the last decade put Fritz’s plight in a larger context: Commuting disproportionately limits and stresses out women compared to men. From restricting job prospects to requiring aviationlike coordinate plotting, daily travel pressures are wearing women down.

A study out of the U.K. titled “It’s driving her mad” found that women feel the psychological impact of commuting four times as strongly as men. Even controlling for other factors like income, job satisfaction and housing quality, the findings held steady. Commuting, for women, gets added to an already heavy workload that often includes child care and the majority of day-to-day household tasks, the researchers explained.


Nancy McGuckin, a travel behavior analyst, says that for many women, commuting is not just a matter of getting through rush hour. “Before the last stop on the train I’m asking my husband if he needs anything from the store,” Fritz says. “I’m thinking about how crowded Trader Joe’s is going to be and what’s for dinner.” A direct route turns into a maze of detours when you add in ferrying kids, picking up dry cleaning and stopping by the grocery. Because of this, McGuckin says, what can be a time-out from the day for many men to listen to music and be alone turns into pure stress for their wives.


Percentage of women employed in a city with an easy commute.


Percentage of women employed in a city with a tougher elements

It even impacts where you choose to make your life: A study out of the University of Chicago shows that cities with longer commute times have fewer married women in the workforce. In cities where commute times increased between 1980 and 2000, the researchers found that more women dropped out of the labor force. In Minneapolis, which has some of the most easily navigable streets for a major city, 79 percent of married, non-Hispanic white women were employed. Compare that with New York City, where the number drops to 49 percent. Neither housing prices nor local wages explains the disparity.

Sure, men still leave earlier in the morning, work later into the evening and have longer trip times. And, as McGuckin points out, part of the stress women feel may be because they take on the burden of making sure everything runs according to plan. But regardless, commuting is shaping — and limiting — workforce diversity (yes, we’re talking to you, companies that don’t allow work-from-home flexibility).

This article has been corrected to reflect the demographic characteristics of women involved in the University of Chicago study.