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Why do men and women travel differently? Study sheds light on gender differences

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Despite more similar roles at work and home than ever before, U.S. men and women continue to have different travel behavior. Historically, employed men have spent more time traveling to work and less time on household and family support trips than women.

While this difference is well-documented, explanations for the difference vary widely: some theories say it’s due to biologically driven differences in gender, while others attribute it to socially constructed gender roles or to gendered structural contexts such as labor market segregation and economic inequality.

While much research has examined these theories, few studies have tested their validity based on evidence—which prompted U of M researchers to examine the theories more deeply in attempt to effectively address gender equity issues in transportation policy.

The researchers set out to test the competing theories by analyzing publicly available data from the American Time Use Survey (ATUS) in various ways across groups of workers with different types of family structures.

First, they tested the theory that travel behavior differences were based on biologically driven gender differences. “If this theory was true, travel differences between men and women could be applied across all population groups regardless of family structure, but this was not the case,” Fan explains. “We found that single female workers and single male workers exhibit no significant difference in travel behavior.”

Next, the team studied the impact of gendered structural contexts, such as women’s greater presence in pink-collar occupations and significantly lower earnings. The team found moderate support for this theory. “These factors are associated with shorter work travel time among some—but not all—family structures,” Fan says.

Researchers did find strong support, however, for the theory that socially constructed gender roles explain travel behavior differences. “We discovered that while marriage alone doesn’t differentiate travel behavior between men and women, parenthood does have a significant impact,” Fan says. “Interestingly, we found that even being the sole breadwinner does not insulate mothers from socially constructed gender roles—female breadwinners in married single-worker households with children have shorter work commutes and more household support travel than male breadwinners in the same family structure.”

According to the researchers, these findings have important implications. First, policies to minimize auto travel (for environmental purposes, for example) may be unfair to women who wish to reach more job possibilities through longer commutes. In addition, the findings highlight the importance of incorporating parenthood as a prime variable in understanding the gender and mobility connection.

Finally, this research provides insights on how future growth or decline in specific family structures may shape travel demand. “As childless households continue to grow in relation to households with children, it’s possible that fewer female workers will be confined by short work commutes and may choose to spend more time commuting to more desirable jobs, placing new demands on the transportation system,” Fan says.

The research was funded in part by a Minnesota Population Center Program Development Grant.

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