The University of Chicago

School of Social Service Administration Magazine

Volume 21 | Issue 1 | Winter 2014
Far From Home A new study gives new context to an old issue—why do women spend less time commuting than men?

Studies have shown that women historically have spent less time commuting than men. Among the explanations is the “household responsibility” thesis: Women take jobs with a shorter commute because they need to be close to home to manage family obligations and household duties. A new study, published in the March 2013 Social Service Review, discovers that the story may be more complicated than that.

In “Accounting for Job Quality in Women’s and Men’s Commute Time to Work: An Update to the ‘Household Responsibility’ Thesis,” Anna Haley-Lock and colleagues from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the University of Cincinnati use data from 2,194 workers to ask whether commuting time for men and women varies with job quality. In other words, are women—and men—willing to commute farther in exchange for a better job?

Commuting has long fascinated scholars of work, race and gender. Geographers suggested that social roles have contributed to a “spatial entrapment” that kept suburban women in low-paid suburban jobs. Others contended that suburban women commuted less because jobs dominated by women were more evenly distributed than those dominated by men. And some said suburban women had shorter commutes (especially compared to urban and rural women) because employers offering women-dominated service-sector jobs relocated in residential areas to take advantage of abundant cheap labor.

Yet Haley-Lock and her fellow researchers found that some women may not be such reluctant commuters after all. By looking at detailed indicators of job quality, they discovered that, on average, women spent more time commuting to jobs that offered fringe benefits, including health insurance, a retirement plan and paid vacation. Higher pay mattered, too, although more for men than for women. Scheduling flexibility did not seem to factor in commuting time for men or women. What does this mean? Haley-Lock suggests that women may have moved beyond the household responsibility thesis. They may be “free from household bonds to travel to a good job,” she says.

From another perspective, however, the study’s findings may suggest that women are forced to commute farther in order to secure benefits for their families, especially health insurance. Indeed, other research suggests that women are increasingly looking for jobs, like schoolteacher or classroom aide, that offer benefits, while their husbands seek the highest pay they can get.

For women, then, commuting may be a sign of liberation—or just one of today’s painful necessities.

Haley-Lock, Anna, Danielle Berman, and Jeffrey M. Timberlake. 2013. “Accounting for Job Quality in Women’s and Men’s Commute Time to Work: An Update to the ‘Household Responsibility’ Thesis.” Social Service Review 87 (1): 70 – 97.