One big difference between male and female general surgery residents: A $30K gap in salary expectations

A surgeon focused on her work
Female general surgery residents have lower salary expectations than their male counterparts. (Getty/Jupiterimages)

When it comes to their career goals, there aren’t many differences between male and female general surgery residents, with one big exception: their salary expectations.

Female residents, on average, anticipated an ideal starting salary that was $30,000 less than their male counterparts and well below the typical salary for general surgeons, according to a new study in JAMA Surgery.

In a survey of more than 400 residents, women had lower expectations of what they should receive in starting salaries and less confidence about salary negotiations, the study found.

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Those lower expectations are costly, as women in general surgery earn less money and hold fewer leadership positions than their male counterparts.

When asked about salary expectations, female residents said they expected a minimum starting salary of $249,502 compared to their male counterparts who expected a minimum of $267,700—a difference of $18,198.

The same was true when asked about an ideal starting salary. Women said they expected to earn $334,709 versus men who said they anticipated making $364,663—a difference of $29,954. That’s well below the $415,000 the Association of American Medical Colleges indicates that 75% of general surgeons at the assistant professor level earn.

RELATED: Pay gap widens for women physicians; earnings average $105K less than men

That’s also a big difference over the course of a career. “Given that the women in our study anticipate working similar hours and retiring at the same age as their male counterparts, this $30,000 difference, multiplied during a 30-year career, would amount to a $900,000 potential difference in lost wages over a lifetime,” the researchers said.

While neither male or female residents liked the prospect of negotiating over salary, women had a more negative view about salary negotiations. They were less likely to believe they had the tools to negotiate successfully (18.6%) versus 31.7% of men. And they were less likely to pursue other job offers as a tool to help them negotiate a higher salary.

The expectation of lower salaries becomes a reality for many women physicians. In terms of salary differences, female physicians earned on average $105,000 less than their male counterparts, the researchers said.

In surgery, women earn significantly less than their male counterparts who hold the same positions, with women making on average $32,000 less than their male general surgery colleagues annually, they said. A 2018 survey conducted for the Maryland State Medical Society found that male physicians in that state earn $335,000 a year on average, compared to $224,000 for female physicians—a difference of almost 50%.

“Given the current gender disparities in salary and leadership within surgery, strategies are needed to help remedy this inequity,” the researchers said. They hope the findings may help identify strategies to help narrow the gender gap in general surgery.

The researchers conducted the survey to assess whether differences exist between male and female general surgery residents on future career goals, salary expectations and salary negotiation that could contribute to disparity later in their careers. The study was based on an anonymous survey sent to 19 general surgery programs across the U.S. in 2017.

There was no difference in overall career goals. Men and women anticipated working the same number of hours, expected to retire at the same age and had a similar interest in holding leadership positions, having academic careers and pursuing research.

In terms of lifestyle, the survey found women residents were less likely to be married, less likely to have children and believed they would likely have more responsibility at home than their significant other.

That sentiment that they would have more responsibility at home is likely true, as a study released early this year in JAMA Surgery found physicians who are mothers take on the majority of the household workload. And the unequal distribution of those tasks may contribute to some doctors’ job dissatisfaction.

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