How a bad commute is worse for women than men

Traffic on the 495 Beltway is backed up from Bethesda to College Park due to emergency pothole repairs on the beltway along the Maryland / Washington, DC border on February 12, 2010. Today was the first day the government went back to work after a four-day closure due to a double snow storm. It was the commute from hell. Photo by Linda Davidson/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Traffic on the 495 Beltway in the Washington, D.C.-metro area can get hairy during rush hour. Research indicates that women, especially with families, are disproportionately stressed from long commutes, which can affect their job prospects. Photo by Linda Davidson/The Washington Post via Getty Images

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 p.m. 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.

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.

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. Example: in Minneapolis, which has some of the most easily navigable streets for a major city, 79 percent of married non-Hispanic white women 25-55 with at least a high school-level education were employed. Compare that same demographic in New York City, 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).

The PBS NewsHour is sharing this story as part of our partnership with OZY Media.