The reason women don’t ‘lean In’ (it’s not just the commute)

The house of cards many working women build to manage career, child care, housework and other tasks is made even more fragile when you add commuting to the mix.

women in network room
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A few weeks ago, I was on a train heading downtown to meet some friends for a happy hour drink when we screeched to a halt. After a few minutes, the conductor announced we were delayed because a car broke down on the tracks at a crossing.

The woman seated across from me groaned and swore under her breath before pulling out her phone and sending a text. When, after about 20 minutes, it became clear we weren't moving anytime soon, her demeanor changed from slightly annoyed to genuinely worried. More texts were sent. As the minutes ticked by, she grew increasingly more agitated, and her texting turned frantic. Finally, she flagged down the conductor to ask when he thought we'd be moving again.

"I need to get my kids from daycare - and they close at 7. I have no idea what I'm going to do …" she cried. At that point, it was about 6:30 pm. (Thankfully, just a few minutes later, we started moving again. The woman raced off a few stops later.)

There but for the grace of God go I. Just because I work from home doesn't mean I'm immune. The incident reminded me of this article from February 2015 claiming to know "The real reason women don't 'lean In'". The article's based on a 2009 British working paper out of the University of Sheffield titled, "It's driving her mad: gender differences in the effects of commuting on psychological well-being," and the upshot is that commuting is exponentially harder on women than it is on men. Yeah, commuting sucks. And it's certainly a factor, but I think it's deeper than that.

As the article says, "Commuting, for women, gets added to an already heavy workload that often includes child care and the majority of day-to-day household tasks, the researchers explained … part of the stress women feel may be because they [also] take on the burden of making sure everything runs according to plan,"

I don't commute, and this is still the biggest challenge I face as a working mom: how to manage work, home, my son, school events, doctor's appointments, any semblance of a social life -- and, like that woman on the train, commuting just exacerbates the problem.

My weekday schedule's so tightly packed that if one thing goes off the rails -- a call with a story source runs five minutes too long, or my son's sick at school and I need to pick him up early; my internet goes down for 20 minutes -- the whole day devolves into chaos. It's a really fragile house of cards. One little hiccup and it all comes tumbling down.

That's what so many women are dealing with on a daily basis, and it's why so many can't lean in, whether or not they want to. What can help? More workplace flexibility and more support at home and at work. I know, it's easier said than done, but it would make such a huge difference in the lives of so many working women -- and it would be a great way to boost workplace diversity, too.

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