Physician moms take on most household work and it's hurting their career satisfaction: study

Young female doctor sitting at desk in front of computer covering face with hand in frustration
Physician moms take on more household work than their spouses or partners. (Getty Images/PRImageFactory)

There’s no equity for most physician moms, at least when it comes to all the work around the house, a new study found.

Physicians who are mothers take on the majority of the household workload, according to the study published in JAMA surgery. And the unequal distribution of those tasks may contribute to some doctors’ job dissatisfaction.

Almost all of the roughly 1,700 physician-mothers who were surveyed as part of the Physicians Mom Group on Facebook were married or had partners. Overall, they reported being responsible for most tasks at home when compared to their spouses or partners, including child care, cooking, laundry, and grocery shopping.

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Some 27% of the group were in procedural specialties, which were defined as all surgical specialties, anesthesiologists, gastroenterologists, and obstetrician-gynecologists. They reported being primarily responsible for five or more tasks at home and more often reported a desire to change careers because of dissatisfaction when compared to those with fewer than five tasks.

That association wasn’t seen among physician moms in nonprocedural specialties, although that's not to say those doctors don't face the same challenges, study author Nelya Melnitchouk, M.D., of Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, said in an email to FierceHealthcare.

Melnitchouk said the study findings were not at all surprising. "Unequal division of domestic labor is a common topic amongst female physicians, particularly for those with children. This is supported by current literature on women in surgery that show that female physicians, particularly those in procedural specialties, face many challenges in balancing responsibilities between work and home. We conducted this study to test our hypothesis that these challenges may affect career satisfaction more negatively for physician mothers in procedural specialties than those in nonprocedural specialties," she said.

RELATED: Doctors who are mothers face ‘insidious, persistent’ discrimination, study finds

So what’s the answer to keeping these doctors in practice? Study authors suggested a more equitable distribution of household tasks among the physician-mothers and their spouses or partners or outsourcing those duties. “Above all, a culture shift is needed in and out of the workplace to view parenting and domestic tasks as shared responsibilities, particularly for dual-career couples,” the authors wrote.

Particularly, as more women enter the surgical workforce, it's important to discuss the issues surrounding gender disparities and parenthood, Melnitchouk said. It's important to look at potential solutions such as extended child care services, increased flexibility in scheduling, outsourcing tasks when needed and emphasizing more equitable division of household labor, she said.

"We believe that the idea that this is solely a women’s issue or that one’s dissatisfaction with her career is a result of a 'woman trying to do it all' reduces the significance of this study," Melnitchouk said.

"Men also can have difficulty balancing their careers with parenthood and this idea is supported in the literature. However, societal expectations that women typically perform certain chores or duties at home often cause an uneven division of domestic labor that can impact women and mothers more than their counterparts. This is where a culture shift to view parenting and domestic tasks as shared responsibilities is incredibly important," she said.

In an accompanying commentary, Julie Ann Freischlag, M.D., of Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center, in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, offered some advice. “The key to career satisfaction is to outsource those domestic chores you do not want to do and to make your own rules,” she said.

RELATED: Physician moms say they face workplace discrimination

Hire help. When it comes to household chores, women should hire help for those things they do not want to do, says Freischlag, who has not cleaned her own house since she was a surgical resident back in 1983 and hired a housekeeper to come in every other week. Use your resources to get things done, she says. At one point her husband became a stay-at-home father and took over the grocery shopping, cooking and running the household.

Be flexible and creative. Do it your own way and do not compare yourself to others, she advised. As an example, she cites the time when she was chair of surgery at Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions and often had to take her son to events if she didn’t have a babysitter. If there was nothing for him to eat on the buffet, she would make him a catsup sandwich or two to tide him over.

Listen for feedback. Listen to feedback from family members and colleagues in the workplace and adjust. For instance, when Freischlag was vascular division chief at the University of California in Los Angeles, she got home in time to tuck her son into bed. He complained that everyone else’s mom had brought in snacks to school and she had not. “Well, I brought snacks the very next day—easy fix,” she wrote.

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