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Long Commutes Mean Moms Stay Home

Photograph by Getty Images

Shortly after finding out I was pregnant with my first, I made it clear to my partner that this baby changed nothing.

"I was raised by a working mother who was raised by a working mother, " I told him. "No matter what, I'm going back."

And I did. I stretched a six-week somewhat-paid maternity leave into six more weeks totally uncompensated. After that, I had found a sitter, re-upped my train pass, and hauled my breast pump and laptop on the two-plus hours round-trip commute five days a week.

I was miserable.

It wasn't that I didn't like my work. I did. Or that I couldn't stand to be away from my baby—I pined for her, but was getting used to that. What I couldn't reconcile was all the hours my baby and I were apart while I sat in the car, on a train and in a subway (reverse in the evening). Even worse was the stress of making sure we picked her up before 6 p.m. and the expense when we didn't ($5 per minute). I had no control over train schedules or rush-hour traffic. My partner often traveled, so I spent much of my workday, when he was away, planning my timely escape just to get the kid.

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So when a new manager called about layoffs, I was more than happy to accept the severance package. I "leaned out," in the new parlance of women in the workplace. But not because male leadership intimidated me or demanded I work until midnight. I left because, all things considered, the commute was killer.

Looks like I might not have been alone.

Some new research into women in the workforce of the biggest cities around the country has turned up interesting results: Regions with a longer average commute tend to have fewer working married women than those areas with shorter commutes. The research team, led by Dan Black of the University of Chicago, will publish these findings in the Journal of Urban Economics. The study is behind a pay wall, but Eric Jaffe, writing for The Atlantic: Cities section, pulls out the facts.

The study, "Why Do So Few Women Work in New York (and So Many in Minneapolis)? Labor Supply of Married Women across U.S. Cities," found that for every added minute of commuting time, the rate of working married women dropped by .3 percent. So for every half-hour commuting difference there was a 10 percent gap in the rate of working wives. The researchers found an even more pronounced gap when dividing the women into groups with young children, older children and no children. Jaffe writes, "The effect was largest for women with young children (under age 5), where a 1-minute commute decreased the probability of working by half a percent, followed by women with older children. Women with no children displayed the effect to a smaller magnitude, as did women with college degrees. Black and colleagues also found that as commute times rose within a particular metro, the female labor force grew more slowly."

While moving closer to one's workplace is always an option, job security (lack thereof) makes that a bit foolish.

The researchers stop short of saying long commutes force mothers out of the workplace—but I won't. One of the biggest barriers in large metro areas, such as the one I lived in (N.Y.C.) and the one I live in now (L.A.), is that jobs are all over the place but never, it seems, just down the road—and rarely for both working adults in the house. While moving closer to one's workplace is always an option, job security (lack thereof) makes that a bit foolish—particularly for families interested in no longer renting.

On housing, the researchers ruled out cost as a factor in the percent of women in the workforce. You'd think the most expensive cities would have the highest rate of everyone working but, in fact, New York City, the big daddy of housing costs, has the lowest rate of working women (52 percent). Minneapolis, a totally affordable Midwestern city, had the highest (79 percent). The researchers couldn't pin it on child care costs either: the wives without kids showed great variation by metro area as well. Not having kids may not be enough to keep women from leaving careers in our biggest urban (read: power) centers.

So what does all this mean?

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For starters, if we are at all to understand whether commutes have a serious impact on the rate of women in the workforce, we need more studies. This one focused on those 25 to 55 and included only white women. It also means city planners have an even bigger job to do when attracting new industries—location matters, but commutes to that location matter for a large part of their constituency, too.

And telecommuting policies really matter for women and a fully representative workforce, too.

After the initial backlash to Marissa Mayer's decision to call in all Yahoo workers and end the corporation's generous work-from-home policy, many women came to Mayer's defense, saying she was doing right by the company, which is what she's expected to do. True. But if getting women to put in the years and move up through the ranks is your focus, this data suggests we need more policies that get people out of the dreaded commute, not fewer.

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