Women’s Quiet Revolutions in Work, Home … and Travel?

October 2007 Update: My article on this topic and these data has now been published in the Journal of the American Planning Association, Summer 2007 issue, available as a free download here.

Dear PhD students and junior faculty especially:

1. This post is partly about how one never knows where research questions will pop up. Be ready. My best personal example is that I study land use/travel issues solely because I happened to see Susan Handy give a great talk some years back which, like a catchy jingle, I couldn’t get out of my head. I was quite confused. Years passed, one thing led to another, yadda yadda yadda.

My sincerest advice to various roomfuls of PhD students since has been to attend all the research talks you can, on any topic, and hope that you become very, very confused by something the speaker says. Then don’t let it drop until you’re sure you’re not getting anywhere. Confusion can be great source material.

2. Today’s lesson comes from a casual reading of a listserv exchange, when I had plenty else to do. Just last month on the planning educators’ listserv, PLANET, Portland State’s Jennifer Dill noted that their admitted masters class was disproportionately female in recent years, and asked if this pattern was evident elsewhere. A few said yes, with quick explanations as to why, when Virginia Tech’s Heike Mayer added,

Maybe your data reflect major shifts in the nature and extent of women’s labor force participation and college going rates. Women have significantly increased their college going and graduation rates. But more importantly they are catching up with men in traditional, more “male-typed” and more “investment” related (as opposed to those that are “consumption” related) college majors. Maybe planning is one of the more “investment” related majors…Claudia Goldin of Harvard wrote a really interesting NBER paper [since published in the American Economic Review], “The quiet revolution that transformed women’s employment, education, and family.”

She argues that women are anticipating more accurately their future work lives and are therefore more likely to invest in more formal education and continue on with college. Also, younger generations of women have a changed perspective about their professional identities and career success. As a result, younger cohorts of women are better prepared to enter the labor market.

These trends may influence what you’re seeing: women’s increased interest and success in professional degree programs like planning. Goldin presents data for business, law and medical programs only. It would be interesting to get the same data for urban planning. Here is a quote from Goldin’s paper on women’s advancement in professional programs:

“Women also began to further their education in professional and graduate schools around 1970 (Figure 5). Whereas in the late 1960s one in twenty entering law school students was a woman, two out of five were in 1980, and parity was reached in the early 2000s. A similar trend occurred for medical students. The increase in the fraction female also rose for other professional programs including dentistry, business administration, veterinary medicine, optometry, and pharmacy. Most important is that the turning points for the four professions given in Figure 5 all occurred during the early 1970s.” (p. 19)


3. This is pretty great stuff for many reasons but, most randomly (as kids today might say), I by luck happened to be stuck rewriting a paper on the trip linking home to work, the commute. I was connecting two dots in Goldin’s story. I blogged an earlier stab here at some incomplete results on trends by sex, a question long debated by transportation planners. These were extended and developed in subsequent presentations at ACSP, Cornell, Illinois, Penn, and Toronto (thanks, by the way).

So I read the listserv exchange and made a note to self: Revolutions at home, school and then on the job — what about the travel among them?

4. First, I scanned the Goldin paper, and another, and since I now talk out loud if it’s my turn and might move things forward, then sent this reply to Jennifer via the listserv:

Goldin’s work on “the quiet revolution” in the character of — and motives for — women’s education and employment since the 1970s does more than explain simple parity in college attendance and performance. It clarifies the sources of gender gap “reversals.” Even as U.S. women’s labor force participation rates have stalled (and dipped) in recent years, Goldin, Katz and Kuziemko (2006) point out that by “2003, there were 1.35 females for every male who graduated from a four-year college and 1.30 females for every male undergraduate.” (p. 134)

Part of the argument is that the return to women of attending college is actually higher than for men; employment alternatives for those without a degree have either larger wage gender gaps or fewer opportunities for advancement/fulfillment or both, among other structural trends. And boys are developmentally slower (on average). “In short, a more level and wider playing field for girls enabled them to blossom and to take advantage of higher expected labor market returns to attending college. At the same time, the slower social development and more serious behavioral problems of boys remained and allowed girls to leapfrog over them in the race to college.” (p. 154)

So, as Heike suggests, answer #1 to Jennifer’s question is that our pool of college graduates these days is mostly female….

5. Meanwhile, back at my day job, the paper-in-progress is data-intensive with enough numbers, tables and graphs to choke a huge, literate horse. Quite dry. Technocratic even, some of my crueler colleagues might say. It lacks a compelling hook, or at least content with broader appeal than to the handful who’ve read up on how commutes vary by sex. For example, why should planners really care? (Honestly, you would think having “sex” as the subject matter would be enough to generate at least highbrow interest. Another scholarly lesson: It’s not.)

But this little bit of catch up on the labor economics of women had two immediate effects. One, the paper title wonderously changed from something blue to something borrowed:

Is There a Quiet Revolution in Women’s Travel?
Revisiting the Gender Gap in Commuting


Two, since my answer is “no,” a wider and possibly more useful question emerged. Why are changes in travel lagging behind these other transformations? From the abstract, coming soon to a planning journal near you:

Gender is both an archetypal and adaptive dimension of the urban condition and thus remains a key moving target for planning practitioners and scholars alike. This is especially true of women’s growing, if not revolutionary, involvement in the economy. A familiar exception is the trip linking work and home, which is consistently and persistently shorter for women than men. That said, recent data hint that the gender gap in travel, much like those in education and careers, may have all but vanished. This might suggest that women are not only comparably prepared for employment, they are finally willing and able to successfully compete for jobs near and far.

[Rather, my data] overwhelmingly indicate that the gender gap stubbornly endures, with distances converging only slowly and times further diverging.

Should planners care? In addition to the light shed on the spatial pattern of employment by sex, these results bear on a gamut of applied planning issues that link where people live to where they work: Sprawl (increasing at a slower rate than expected), spatial mismatch (commute times by race are converging, especially for women), welfare reform (women remain at a spatial disadvantage in job access), and transit policy (female transit use is shrinking rapidly). Planners should be alert to the evidence that sex continues to play a distinguishing role in travel, housing and labor market dynamics.

And from the conclusion,


In closing, there is no revolution, quiet or otherwise, in women’s travel behavior evident in these data. Even with the substantial increase of women participation in the economy in recent decades, the average woman’s travel trends consistently differ markedly from the average man’s. Possible explanations run the gamut, from labor and housing market dynamics, to the circumstances of and preferences for travel, to the ways in which families negotiate the tradeoffs among these internally.

I could go on but take a look at the final article if you are interested. Here’s hoping you find something there very, very confusing.

Thursday, April 5th, 2007
randall Crane
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