Female physicians report fewer professional opportunities from online networking

Most male and female physicians say they use social media for professional networking, but the latter group is less likely to report that their time online yielded tangible professional benefits such as speaking opportunities or a scholarship.

Among a sample of 577 physicians (56% women, 44% men), about two-thirds of respondents from both genders said they used the technology for networking, according to a survey study recently published in JAMA Network Open.

Most respondents from both groups said doing so led to more collaborations both inside and outside of their specialty or organization. Around half of the men and women said professional use of social media also improved their job satisfaction.

Other motivations for using the technology were less uniform among the genders. Female physicians were significantly more likely to say they used social media to build a professional support network (73% versus 55%). Men, meanwhile, more often said they used social media as a learning tool for research (83% versus 68%) or clinical topics (86% versus 76%).

The physicians also reported differences in the types of professional opportunities they had received as a result of social media use.

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Here, the responses suggested that female physicians were significantly less likely to have expanded their research portfolio (36% versus 48%). They also reported less frequently having obtained a speaking engagement (30% versus 39%) or a scholarship opportunity (21% versus 25%) due to networking on social media platforms.

“The findings of this survey study suggest that social media use by women physicians may not improve gender equity,” researchers wrote in the study. “It may be the case that the same biases that lead to fewer opportunities for professional advancement for women persist in the online physician community, hindering women’s professional advancement. Future work to ameliorate this gender disparity is warranted.”

The researchers distributed the survey on social media platforms between February and March 2019. About three-quarters of the respondents identified themselves as white, a non-trainee physician and living in North America.

The researchers also referenced a 2019 study conducted by the Association of American Medical Colleges that found lower follower counts and engagement among women researchers compared to men. Taking the results of these two surveys together, they speculated that the lower engagement “may result in reduced visibility of women physicians on social media, despite women explicitly using it to expand their professional network.”

The gender and online professional networking results follow another survey study published by the authors in January that looked at the prevalence of personal attacks and sexual harassment of physicians through social media.

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Using the sampling methodology to solicit and analyze 464 responses, the researchers found that male and female physicians were personally attacked on social media at roughly similar rates. Women, however, were significantly more likely (16.4% versus 1.5%) to report online sexual harassment.

The broader debate over physicians’ use of social media and gender boiled over last summer when an article published in the Journal of Vascular Surgery reported that many recent and upcoming graduates in vascular surgery had social media accounts with a history of “unprofessional content.”

Included in this category were pictures with alcoholic beverages, posts with profanity or controversial political topics and images of physicians in underwear, swimwear or “provocative Halloween costumes.”

Numerous physicians pushed back against the paper as misogynistic, sparking a Twitter movement dubbed #MedBikini in which physicians of all genders posted photos of themselves in swimwear or participating in the other activities cited in the paper as unprofessional. The article was eventually retracted by request of the authors, with one posting his own (now deleted) apology on Twitter.