Men, Women, Work, and Commuting

There is a perception in the labor market that men are more dedicated workers than women. This is judged in part because of the reportedly longer work hours men spend on the job than women. Some recent research I have come across would call that assumption into question.
The first concept that needs to be understood is that men and women are segregated into separate fields – not exclusively – but consistently. On a side note, labor market segregation is a leading contributor to female wage discrimination (Cohen and Huffman 2003). The more segregated the market, the lower the average wages for women compared to men. For this study it is more important to note that jobs such as nursing, teaching, waitressing, cleaning, secretarial work etc – are predominately done by women. And that sales jobs, financial, and managerial jobs (for instance) are dominated by male employees.

Black, Kolesnikova and Taylor (2009) suggest that commute times may be one of the culprits. They find that for every 1 minute increase in commute time there is an associated drop of about .5 percent in labor force participation of married women. Married women with children is associated with .66 percent decrease in labor force participation, and single women with a .24% decrease.

That one minute increase in daily one-way commute times really adds up. This equates to 3-6 hours per year (depending on your marital and child status) per minute of average one-way commute time. Now, both men and women contribute to the average commute time. But how might their experience be different? Returning to the labor market segregation, it may be that men and women have been funneled into jobs that are more (or less) conducive to working while commuting.

When I worked for a software development company years ago my manager asked that we record all of the time that we worked on our weekly time cards. If I looked at a spreadsheet on the bus, took a phone call in the car, or even listened to certain news reports about our industry, I could count that as working. This is not cheating. I was indeed working. But the type of job I had allowed me to get credit for something I already had to do – commute. If more men are working in jobs like my former employment and if more women are working in jobs where they simply have to travel, that could make an enormous difference. In a city like New York, with an average 40 minute commute, the annual cost of commuting for a mother is the equivalent of working an additional 1.5 months (240 total hours extra) a year when compared to men!

Thus far I have talked about differentiated markets. The cost is compared from one type of job to the other. Women in a managerial setting should benefit the same as men as being perceived as hard workers because of the extra time spent working instead of just commuting. But we know that even in the same profession, even the same company, that men are considered more “team players” than women. How might these aggregate level time differentials contribute to overall perceptions outside of the company and sector and even minimize the contribution of women inside the same profession as men?

In a study on male and female prison guards, Dana Britton (1997) found that there is a perception that prison guards need to be large in stature. Even though most guards never even come in contact with prisoners, and an even smaller percentage ever need to subdue a prisoner, it was a common perception the size mattered a great deal and therefore males were better guards – because it was assumed that they were larger than women. This perception even held true for the men who were smaller in stature than some of the female guards. The small men benefited from the perceptions of the system and they took on the size of the ubiquitous male – regardless of physical evidence to the contrary.

More men than women work in jobs that allow them to work while commuting. This will inflate the over-all work hours that all men put in, relative to the work that all women put in, on the actual job. This may then create a general perception that men (at large) work harder than any specific woman in any particular circumstance. If this is true, then it  would create negative social pressure to undervalue women’s work in general (regardless of what type of work), because of a macro level phenomenon. We see this undervaluation going on. This is one possible explanation that I am exploring in greater detail.

While no policy can be formed to specifically address this phenomenon, if managers were more aware that their perceptions were being manipulate against their female employee’s work it might help them focus more on verifiable contributions instead of general (mis)perceptions.

—by SMS

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One thought on “Men, Women, Work, and Commuting

  1. ALA says:

    That is a novel thought–I had never thought about gender differences concerning commuting! And the inexorable logic of consequences with regard to things such as perception of dedication and competence. Very interesting!

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