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Less Time Spent Commuting May Also Mean Smaller Wages: How commuting behaviour promotes the motherhood wage penalty

By Thomas Skora, Heiko Rüger & Nico Stawarz (German Federal Institute for Population Research, BiB)

Woman getting on train with baby
Source: triocean

Prior to the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, it was common for people to spend a significant amount of time commuting to work. But travelling long distances every day can create stress and impact one’s family life. Commuting tends to vary over an individual’s life course: Looking specifically at women entering motherhood, they tend to reduce their commute when transitioning to parenthood. Does it come with consequences?

To better understand this phenomenon, we conducted a study to see how the transition to having one’s first child affects the commuting behaviour of women and men in Germany and the consequences for the mothers' income based on data from the German Socio-Economic Panel (SOEP) (Skora, Rüger & Stawarz, 2020). We were interested in looking at the impact of changes in commuting behaviour on women’s wages after having their first child, the so-called motherhood wage penalty.

The first thing we found was that almost one in three of the mothers surveyed actually reduced their commuting distance substantially after the birth of the first child, i.e. by at least one-third of the previous distance travelled. This reduction is achieved either by a change of residence or by a change of job. In most cases, the reduction occurs when they return to work after parental leave, and it is often maintained over the long term. Men, however, do not noticeably change their commuting behaviours when they become fathers.

The wage cuts that mothers have to bear as a consequence of reduced commuting became evident in the second part of our analysis. According to our calculations, women who do not reduce their commuting distance after the birth of their first child have an average child-related wage loss of 8.7 per cent. In comparison, the relative wage loss of women who reduce their commuting distance due to parenthood is about twice as high at 18.4 per cent. Overall, almost a quarter of the total motherhood wage penalty can be attributed to wage losses in connection with the reduction in commuting distance.

The decisive factor for the loss of income is how women actually reduce their commuting distance. The majority take up a new job closer to where they live. Looking exclusively at mothers who reduce their commuting distance by finding another job, the average wage loss is 30 per cent. Less often, changes in the commuting distance are the results of a change in one’s place of residence. We found that when women move closer to their current job after giving birth, this method to reduce the commuting distance does not cause any wage loss.

We were able to identify several mechanisms that contribute to the wage losses associated with the search for a new job closer to the home. First, these wage losses are due to the fact that a job change means the loss of wage advantages resulting from company-specific know-how and company career development. A second important cause is the restriction to the job market close to the place of residence: In favour of shorter commuting distances and due to a lack of alternatives, jobs are often taken up that no longer correspond to the individual qualification profile. In addition, moving to a job closer to home is usually associated with working for a smaller company that pays lower wages on average than larger firms.

Suburban and more rural areas offer conditions that are attractive to many young families. However, empirical evidence suggests that suburban labour markets are often less attractive than urban labour markets in terms of earning opportunities. Therefore, workers living in rural areas often have to commute relatively long distances to reach more attractive jobs (Lines, 2020; Čipin et al., 2020). Our findings are in line with previous studies suggesting that fathers living in rural or suburban areas overcome poor local labour market conditions by accepting longer commutes, while mothers are restricted to the local labour markets of their residential area (Nisic, 2017).

Based on our results, three possible strategies can be inferred that seem promising when it comes to reducing the motherhood wage penalty due to spatial mobility restrictions:

  • Facilitating commuting: Policies could support the spatial mobility of parents so that breaks in their working lives are avoided. Particularly promising in this respect is the development of a childcare infrastructure that is adapted to the needs of commuting parents (e.g. flexible opening hours).
  • Reducing commuting burdens: Working from home can be an effective way to reduce the burden of commuting and conflicts between work and family.
  • Reducing mobility demands: Complementary measures could aim to create attractive work opportunities close to where families live so that parents who reduce their commuting distance do not have to accept too great a loss of income in return. Another recommendation is to encourage family-friendly rents and residential area design in cities.


Link to open-access publication “Commuting and the Motherhood Wage Gap: Evidence from Germany”:



Čipin, I., Klüsener, S., Recaño, J. & Ulceluse, M. (2020). A long-term vision for the development of rural areas in Europe: Insights from demography. Population and Policy Brief, No. 27. Berlin: Max Planck Society/Population Europe.

Lines, E. (2020). Demographic change. Are equal living conditions falling to the wayside? Population and Policy Brief, No. 20. Berlin: Max Planck Society/Population Europe.

Nisic, N. (2017). Smaller differences in bigger cities? Assessing the regional dimension of the gender wage gap. European Sociological Review, 33(2), 292–3044.

Skora, T., Rüger, H. & Stawarz, N. (2020). Commuting and the Motherhood Wage Gap: Evidence from Germany. Sustainability, 12(14), 5692.