Why do female physicians earn less than men? Here's what the women had to say

The majority of female physicians believe that their male counterparts earn more than they do, and 76% say unconscious employer discrimination is the reason.

Some 74% of female physicians say male doctors earn more even when the choice of specialty or hours worked are accounted for, according to a survey by Merritt Hawkins, a physician search company. In the new report Survey of Women in Medicine, the company asked more than 400 female doctors across the country why women physicians earn less than males.

Unconscious bias is the main cause of the gender pay gap, the doctors said. “While employers may judge two candidates for the same job to be equally qualified, they may unconsciously imbue the male candidate with more financial value than the female candidate,” said Travis Singleton, executive vice president of Merritt Hawkins.

“Even though female physicians are just as highly sought after as males, many female physicians believe their equal value is not reflected in their employment contracts,” he said.

About 40% of female physicians said they currently earn less than male physicians in their current practice. When asked why, 73% said they received a smaller base salary and/or production bonus than their male colleagues. This suggests that gender-based income disparities in medicine begin at the initial stages of a physician’s career, when she is offered a first contract that may pay less than contracts offered to male counterparts.

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If pay inequities begin with their first employment contracts, female physicians could lose out on hundreds of thousands of dollars over the course of their careers, Singleton said.

While more women physicians attributed the gender pay gap to unconscious employer bias, others said employers consciously discriminate against female physicians.

Other reasons the doctors think women don’t earn as much? Over two-thirds of those surveyed (68%) said female physicians are less aggressive or adept at salary negotiation than males and identified this as the second most important reason they are paid less. The fact that female doctors spend more time with patients than do males and that female physicians are less likely to be practice owners were other reasons female physicians cited for why they are paid less.

“The biggest issue is that when women similarly assert their knowledge and worth, they are considered being pushy, bitchy, demanding, difficult, etc.,” said one female physician, commenting as part of the survey.

The survey also found that three-quarters of female physicians have personally experienced income inequality or other forms of gender discrimination during their medical education and careers. That news came at the same time the Association of American Medical Colleges said that for the first time women now make up the majority of medical school students in the U.S.

“Women are entering medicine in record numbers and are having a profound impact on the medical profession,” said Singleton. “However, despite these achievements, female physicians continue to be paid less than their male counterparts and face other forms of workplace discrimination.”

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Of those female physicians who have experienced gender-based discrimination, 75% said they experienced inappropriate words or actions directed toward them by fellow physicians and 57% from managers or employers.  Some 41% of those exposed to gender discrimination have experienced verbal sexual harassment, while 14% have experienced physical sexual harassment.

“The culture is changing but there is still an old boy’s club mentality in medicine that is occasionally difficult to break into,” said one female physician in the survey.

The survey asked female physicians if gender discrimination has affected them in any way. About three quarters (73%) said gender discrimination has diminished their morale and career satisfaction, 44% said it caused them to seek a different practice setting, 32% said they considered early retirement and 29% said it caused them to rethink their choice of a career.

Despite it all, 89% said they would not discourage young women from entering medicine based in whole or in part on the presence of gender discrimination in the field.

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Given a growing shortage of physicians, patients can ill afford the early retirement of female doctors, according to Singleton.

“Gender discrimination is more than just a challenge for individual doctors,” Singleton said. “When it diminishes the overall supply of physicians, it becomes a matter of public health.”

Various surveys, including other surveys conducted by Merritt Hawkins, indicate that female physicians experience higher rates of burnout than do males, and gender discrimination may be one reason for this, according to Singleton.