You’ve heard of the gender pay gap, but how about the gender commuting gap?

Research from the UK suggests it’s a reality that may impact women’s wages and work opportunities.

A study by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) found that women are more likely than men to commute for 15 minutes or less in every region of the UK except London (where relatively long journeys to work are commonplace).

Men are more likely than women to have longer commutes
Image: Office for National Statistics

Men, on the other hand, made two-thirds (65%) of the commutes lasting an hour or more.

As well as travelling longer distances to work, men are also more likely than women to commute between regions in the UK.

So why do women work closer to home? Statistics suggest it has a lot to do with who takes on the primary carer role.

Looking at different data, the think tank the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) analysed the commuting patterns of men and women before and after they had children.

As the chart shows, before the birth of their first child, women had slightly shorter commutes than men on average. But in the decade after having a first child, the average commuting time among women fell while remaining largely the same for fathers.

The gender commuting gap widens after having a child
Image: IFS

Working closer to home due to parental responsibilities may limit women’s chances of finding a high-paying job, or one that offers the best prospects for developing their careers, and it may be yet another of the many factors that contribute to the gender pay gap.

The World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report 2018 found that, on average, 63% of the wage gap and 50% of estimated earned income gap have been closed globally so far.

The widening of the gender commuting gap during those 10 years after having a first child “bears a striking resemblance to the evolution of the gender wage gap”, the IFS wrote in its analysis, although it added that this doesn’t necessarily mean there’s a direct causal link between them.

Shorter commutes limit choice of jobs

Women across the world continue to shoulder a larger share of unpaid caring duties, and this is reflected in their travel patterns, according to the World Bank, which financed a survey exploring the gender commuting gap in Buenos Aires.

The research found that women in the Argentinian capital spent as much time commuting as men, but made more trips covering shorter distances. This was the case particularly for mothers who also travelled more slowly, and frequently during off-peak hours, for example to drop off and pick up children from childcare.

The World Bank says its survey echoes findings in Europe, the US, and in developing nations like Peru and Vietnam.

The constraint on longer commutes has “inevitable consequences” for women’s wage rates and employment opportunities, says the Bank. In parts of greater Buenos Aires, fathers have access to 80-100% more jobs than mothers.

World Bank
Image: The gender commuting gap in Buenos Aires

But it’s not just women losing out. A McKinsey Global Institute report in 2015 found that advancing women’s equality could add $12 trillion to global GDP by 2025.

It isn’t just that women are paid less than men, and that they tend to work in lower-paid industries, the “motherhood penalty” – which includes mothers being more likely to do part-time or flexible work and take career breaks – also goes some way towards explaining the gender pay gap.

The Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report 2018 also found that, in the 29 countries for which data was available, women spend on average twice as much time on unpaid tasks, including housework and household care, as men.

But, as the IFS highlights, a significant portion of the difference between men and women’s earnings is not yet fully understood, so perhaps the gender commuting gap might help shed more light on the problem.