Mind the gap: why commute time is on the front line of the gender pay gap

Mind the gap: why commute time is on the front line of the gender pay gap

In 2018, LexisNexis reported on the opportunity gap that underpins the endemic problem of gendered wage disparity in the UK. Discussing the discrepancies between the genders, we explored the competing and complex influences that underscore the opportunity gap and prevent women from achieving fiscal parity with their male counterparts.

While there are still a variety of urgent office-based factors that underlie the wage gap, socio-economic factors certainly have their role to play. When it comes to identifying origins of the gender pay gap, it is important to take a broader view of society’s ecosystems to understand the symptoms of inequality. Surveying the imbalance in commute time is an interesting lens through which to examine equality of opportunity; in a survey undertaken by the Office for National Statistics, it was found that on average men make up 65% of those whose commutes last more than an hour. Only a small nucleus of women makes the same journey, with a mere 34% of women deciding to commute out of region for work. Overall, female professionals favour 1-15-minute commutes. While few would dispute the relief of avoiding an overcrowded commuter train—this disparity has more to answer for than you might think. In this article, we discuss the possible ramifications of a gendered commute, and the reasons why women appear to prioritise local working.

A commuter haven, London attracts a global workforce. Legally speaking, this is no less true; talented and ambitious lawyers from all over the country continue to be drawn to London based, Magic Circle law firms compared to smaller, less prestigious, regional law firms. These firms are the natural home of the best and brightest talent as the most direct pathway for achieving their career aspirations. However, like the majority of businesses nationally, Magic Circle law firms suffer from a gender gap. Highlighted in data published by The Law Society, less than 19% of partners in Magic Circle law firms were women, and fewer than half of all associate and trainee lawyers were female.  

In this context, the type of commuter travelling into London takes on significance and helps us understand the pool of talent entering the City each day. Over 70% of commuters in London and the South East are male. Though this trend is echoed nationally, it is particularly prevalent in this region; only 38% of workers commuting into London are women—it seems men continue to prop-up London commuter culture. In fact, this imbalance only exacerbates as we age. Men aged 30-49[1] do the most commuting of any age group. In women of this age group, this number dips dramatically, with only 31% of women aged 30 to 49 commuting for work. These statistics are reflected in the gender profile of many London law firms. Women are seen to make up 49% of all trainees, however, the retention of female professionals deteriorates over time. Only 24% of women make up partners at Magic Circle law firms.

While local female working could indicate a range of factors, crucially it indicates a need to be nearer the home, unlike the nation’s male professionals who continue to travel cross-country. In instances of two parent households, this likely indicates that many women are the designated care giver or that couples could be making decisions about their financial future based on pre-existing workplace biases. The toll the gender pay gap plays on relationship dynamics should not be underestimated. By the time a woman turns 28—the average age in the UK for a woman to have her first child—pay equality has already begun to diverge and men’s rate of pay is beginning to pull away compared to a woman’s earnings. As a result, this problem is doubtless self-perpetuating; women face the difficult decision to self-exclude to ensure the financial health of their families due to the fact men are already out-earning them. Commuter culture is not of itself problematic, but it does illustrate broader structural biases.

In a report undertaken by the Law Society, data reveals that female solicitors on average fare best outside the capital. Regional law firms have the highest proportion of women at all three levels (trainee, junior, partner) ‘managing an average of 64.5% at the trainee level, and 60.7% and 26% respectively at the associate and partnership levels’. Although there is still a significant drop at the most senior levels, regional figures far exceed the average. This may be due to a range of factors: locality to the home, better work-life balance or opportunity to work more flexibly.

Each of these factors presents its own unique set of challenges and each speaks to a need to achieve a better balance between work and home life. However, commuter culture is arguably one particularly prevalent barrier to realising equality of opportunity between the genders. Presenteeism ignores the competing socio-economic demands facing women and the attached labour of being the primary care giver.

As increasing numbers of top law firm attempt to turn the tide on the drain of talent, Magic Circle law firms should turn their attention to how they attract more women. Despite starting salaries for trainees reaching an all-time peak at £50,000 in 2018, it is having little effect on retention, particularly amongst women. And this should be of interest to law firms. Although an increase in salaries is a welcome relief for all women, the problem of opportunity does not disappear with the addition of extra cash. Law firms need to be more receptive to the lives of women, their position as primary care giver, and adapt their working policies as a result. Properly compensating women for their work is only one piece of the puzzle—improving work/life balance is an essential aspect of retaining women in the workplace and realising equality of opportunity. To mitigate the commuter problem, companies should employ a visible flexible working programme and cultivate a meaningful value system which rewards all kinds of workers—not simply those who can commit the most hours to the job.

Commuting is not the root cause of inequality—that much is certain. However, when the average demographic of commuter is considered in concert with the demographic of the average lawyer, we can see that the professions are still predominantly male. To affect real change, law firms must assess their business practices from the bottom up.

Don’t let the future of your law firm be delayed by a train.



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About the author:
Catherine is one of the Future of Law's digital editors. She graduated from Durham University with a degree in English Literature and worked at a barristers chambers before joining Lexis Nexis.