The Contrasting Perceptions of Long-Distance Commuting Mothers: The Importance of the Family Context

Heiko Rüger, Federal Institute for Population Research
Gil Viry, University of Edinburgh

This paper examines how long-distance commuting mothers perceive their work-related travel. Using data from the ‘Job Mobilities and Family Lives in Europe’ survey and a pooled sample of long-distance commuting mothers living with partner and children aged 0-17 years, the analysis tests whether mothers’ long-distance commuting perception varies with travel and work situation (e.g. duration of mobility, flexible hours), financial and household situation, and gender-role beliefs. Results show that mothers are more likely to perceive their long commutes negatively and as a burden than men and women without children. However, this perception strongly varies among long-distance commuting mothers, with a majority of them seeing their long commutes in a neutral or positive way. Based on cluster analysis and multiple correspondence analysis, results show that mobile mothers are more likely to perceive their long commutes positively when they have older children, flexible working hours and career-oriented values. Conversely, a negative mobility perception is associated with inflexible working hours, traditional gender roles attitudes and unequal division of housework. The country of origin has also a very strong effect on how mothers perceive their work-related travel. Mothers living in Switzerland, Germany tend to perceive their long commutes positively, whereas those living in Spain perceive them negatively, with women living in Belgium, France and Poland lying in between. Interestingly, the level of educational and financial resources available to mothers poorly explains mothers’ mobility perception. Overall, this contribution will emphasise the importance of making everyday spatial mobility practices more central to our understanding of gender inequalities, work-family balance and family life.

Gender role theory predicts that mothers who spend a great deal of time commuting to work are less satisfied with their travel than long-distance commuting fathers. Highly mobile mothers would feel guilty and stressed out by long commutes due to their involvement in childcare and household responsibilities. They would also perceive their long commutes negatively, because it does not conform to the traditional gender norms assigned to ‘good mothers’. In this view, long-distance commuting mothers would be trapped in family and employment situations that force them to commute long distances.

On the other hand, we can expect that the highly-selected group of long-distance commuting mothers may perceive their mobility positively. Having a job requiring long commutes – and in some cases pursuing a professional career – may be seen as a source of security, autonomy, and pride, in a labour market where women remain disadvantaged. Travel time can be experienced by mothers as a rare opportunity in an otherwise busy work-family schedule to undertake activities for themselves, such as reading books or listening to music, and to prepare the transition between work and home roles.

This contribution aims to test these competing hypotheses using data from the ‘Job Mobilities and Family Lives in Europe’ survey. It examines whether mothers’ long-distance commuting perception varies with travel and work situation (e.g. duration of mobility, flexible hours), financial and household situation, and gender-role beliefs. 7,200 participants aged 25-54 living in Belgium, France, Germany, Poland, Spain and Switzerland were interviewed in 2007 using the same questionnaire. 1,735 participants from four countries were re-interviewed between 2010 and 2012 and an additional sample of 1,000 highly mobile participants from France and Germany was added. People who were highly mobile at the time of the interview (and who were oversampled in both waves) were asked to rate their overall perception of their mobility experience.

We used a final pooled sample of 251 long-distance commuting mothers (1 hour or more home-to-work commute) living with partner and children aged 0-17 years. Overall, mothers are more likely to perceive their long commutes negatively and as a burden than men and women without children. However, this perception strongly varies among long-distance commuting mothers, with a majority of them seeing their long commutes in a neutral or positive way. Based on cluster analysis and multiple correspondence analysis, results show that mobile mothers are more likely to perceive their long commutes positively when they have older children, flexible working hours and career-oriented values. Conversely, a negative mobility perception is associated with inflexible working hours, traditional gender roles attitudes and unequal division of housework. The country of origin has also a very strong effect on how mothers perceive their work-related travel. Mothers living in Switzerland, Germany tend to perceive their long commutes positively, whereas those living in Spain perceive them negatively, with women living in Belgium, France and Poland lying in between. Interestingly, the level of educational and financial resources available to mothers poorly explains mothers’ mobility perception. Overall, this contribution will emphasise the importance of making everyday spatial mobility practices more central to our understanding of gender inequalities, work-family balance and family life.

Presented in Session 1233: Posters