Now that summer is over and that holiday feeling has worn off, millions of UK employees are back to the grind of the daily commute.
For many of us, it is the least inspiring part of the day, and most organisations do not give a second thought to how their employees make it to their desks.
However, new data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) tells us that our commutes are more significant than we might otherwise think. While we are familiar with the gender pay gap, our travel arrangements give rise to an inequality of their own: the so-called “commuting gap”.
While many professionals working in the capital commute in order to access the higher pay on offer in London, the impact is far from equally felt. In fact, 65 per cent of commuters travelling over an hour are men, while women are less likely to see the value in travelling greater distances, and tend to have shorter commutes of less than 15 minutes.
If women are limited by geography, this is going to affect their earnings potential. And the ONS puts it starkly: “women are more likely than men to leave their job due to a longer commute.”
Both the commuting gap and the pay gap widen noticeably in employees’ late twenties and thirties, around the median age for first-time parents.
The ONS analysis confirms that women tend to take on most of the childcare, and often feel the need to remain closer to home, which in turn harms their pay and progression. This is particularly worrying when the ONS warns that commutes are getting longer overall.
Everyone’s journey to work will be a product of different factors, many of which are out of our employers’ control: our relationships, our budgets, our need for space, and our tolerance for squeezing onto the train. But businesses cannot afford to pretend the commute is irrelevant, either as a matter of fairness or – in the age of costly discrimination claims – as a matter of law.
Some of the solutions lie in employers’ policies. In particular, while employees have a statutory right to request flexible working such as part-time hours or working from home, this has been implemented with various degrees of enthusiasm.
One of the real challenges is getting past the perception that certain roles cannot be flexible, and that flexibility is for women alone.
Encouraging senior leaders of both genders to work flexibly can have an important cultural impact in making this way of working acceptable, as well as eroding the link between commuting time and pay.
This is not without risk for employers. Working from home requires a level of trust, insofar as productivity is concerned, and planning for IT. Co-working spaces can offer more structure, but in a data-conscious world, should be treated with the same caution as working from a coffee shop.
However, an open-minded approach has the potential not only to diminish the commuting gap, but to improve employee wellbeing and retention, and equip businesses for travel disruption. The related costs have to be balanced against the not-insignificant expense of replacing those female staff members who leave because of inflexible work practices.