3 ways doctors say can help break the ‘fiberglass ceiling’ and close the startling gender pay gap

Pay transparency in the workplace is the best strategy for closing the gender pay gap that persists among physicians, doctors say.

In a new survey of more than 2,500 doctors by the physician social network SERMO, 67% of respondents say compensation transparency is the top key to ending a pay gap that, for instance, has female physicians in Maryland earning about 50% less in annual compensation than their male counterparts.

The medical profession is one of the only industries that does not freely discuss salaries, said Erin Fitzgerald, senior vice president of marketing at SERMO, in an interview with FierceHealthcare. Healthcare organizations could be more transparent by releasing information about salary ranges for jobs, such as director-level positions, she said.

Erin Fitzgerald
Erin Fitzgerald (SERMO)

Other ways doctors said would help to equalize the pay between male and female doctors?

Pass the Paycheck Fairness Act (19%). What is that? It’s a proposed law that would add protections to existing laws as part of an effort to address the gender pay gap in the U.S. not just among physicians but all workers. Among its provisions, it would punish employers for retaliating against workers who share wage information.

Provide negotiation training (14%). Training would help women learn ways to better negotiate their compensation, including being more assertive.

Despite the startling headlines and survey after survey that shows female doctors make significantly less, no significant progress has been made in rectifying the gender disparity, Fitzgerald said: “The pay gap seems to continue to expand. This is a serious issue.”

In the SERMO survey, which included both male and female physicians, 54% of respondents said gender bias is the top cause of pay discrimination in the healthcare field. What’s at stake for gender disparities going forward? Some 64% of doctors said it is the lack of female representation in executive healthcare roles, and 36% cited the gender gap’s impact on science, technology, engineering or math (STEM) fields.

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One survey released earlier this year found that female primary care physicians earn an average of 18% less than males and women in specialties earn 36% less than men—gaps that got bigger since the previous year.

And the pay gap continues to generate controversy, such as the news earlier this month that a Texas doctor apologized over comments published in the Dallas Medical Journal in which he said female physicians make less money because they don’t work as hard. The fallout was swift, as the doctor stepped down from his leadership positions at Texas Health Plano.

RELATED: Physician Practice Roundup—Texas doctor apologizes after saying female physicians make less because they don’t work as hard

Torie Sepah, M.D., a psychiatrist, said such comments from a fellow doctor should be astounding. “Why am I not shocked? Well, because he’s stating what every female physician already knows. Medicine doesn’t have a glass ceiling. It has a fiberglass one. You will break your neck trying to shatter it,” Sepah wrote in a blog post this week on KevinMD.

In fact, comments made anonymously by physicians responding to SERMO’s survey reflected varying viewpoints. “To a certain extent there will inevitably be a pay gap as women choose to take off more time to have babies, care for children, etc. Specialty choice is a factor also,” wrote one doctor.

Another said to accurately assess the pay gap, doctors need to look at the pay per hour worked, as well as quality and productivity. “Then you are comparing apples to apples. It must be boiled down this way and then you truly have equal pay for equal work,” one doctor wrote.

And the pay gap doesn’t exist for all women. “I didn't see a pay gap against women in my specialty when I was an employed physician. At one time, I was out-earning (productivity based) my male colleagues. I also held several leadership positions. Now I earn less because I choose to work less,” said one doctor.

And another said money isn’t everything.

“There are so many ways to look at this. Young physicians out of residency are desperate to put money ahead of job stability and satisfaction. Look at it as if you were running a long-distance race,” wrote one respondent, who said her doctor is an OB/GYN, who was frustrated by her salary. She urged women to take some courses on negotiation tactics and be proactive in contract negotiations.

“As a woman, it is very hard to belly up with your male counterparts but just keep in mind that the long-term goals are better than short career [goals] and a lot of money," she said.