That Pesky Gender Pay Gap Exists For Doctors Too

Reshma Jagsi, an associate professor and physician researcher at the University of Michigan Health System, uncovered some sobering news recently.

When it comes to the gender wage gap, even top female physicians in academia like Jagsi herself can’t catch a break.

Jagsi is the lead author of a study published Tuesday in the Journal of the American Medical Association that looked at similar groups of men and women who are midcareer physician researchers and found that even among these professionals, income inequality exists.

"It is disappointing," she said about her findings. "We would like to think in medicine these kinds of things don't affect our profession."

The pay disparity between women and men has been long-documented, but often people brush such reports aside because they claim that they don’t look at the whole picture, including choices women may make.

"We thought if we focused on the cream of the crop of physician researchers, all at the same point in their careers, all doing the same work, and if we controlled for specialty and work hours, we could understand what's driving the gender difference," Jagsi explained. "Disturbingly, even after we controlled for all those factors, the male doctors were paid more than the female doctors."

The mean salary for women physician researchers was $167,669, compared to $200,433 for their male counterparts. Even after adjusting for specialty, academic rank, leadership positions, publications and research time, the study found that women made about $12,000 less than men. And over the course of their careers, she added, women in this study will end up earning $350,000 less than men doing the same type of work.

What makes this study unique is that researchers took pains to make sure they were comparing apples to apples. All the physicians in the study had received prestigious National Institutes of Health grants and went on to work for academic institutions.

According to the researchers, “this study, which considered a homogeneous population of physicians, demonstrates a substantial and significant gender difference in salary, one-third of which is unexplained by differences in specialty, productivity or numerous other measured factors.”

Researchers did find some differences between male and female physician researchers, including the percentage of leadership positions they held and the medical specialties they chose.

Women held fewer of the top jobs, and that could explain some of the disparity in pay, but, the study pointed out, “being passed over for a leadership position may be part of the same process that leads a woman to advance more slowly and be paid less than her male peers.”
Women also were less likely to be in higher paying specialties, except obstetrics and gynecology. With respect to this, the researchers said, “It may be important to consider the gender gap without adjustment for specialty if women do not choose but rather are encouraged to occupy lower-paid specialties or if those specialties pay less partly because they are predominated by women.”

And as for the mommy penalty, aka, women making less because they choose to pare down their careers for motherhood, the researchers found the notion was not supported in their sample:

“Sex differences in compensation may be related to parental status, with mothers potentially more likely to sacrifice pay for unobserved job characteristics such as flexibility and fathers potentially more likely to wish to earn more to support their families. However, in contrast to some other studies, we did not observe any interaction between gender and parental status; even women without children had lower pay than men. Thus, we found no evidence suggesting differential influence of parental status on priorities or values of the male vs. female academic physicians in this sample.”

The report is further evidence that women do get shortchanged when it comes to their paychecks, and the level of their professional attainment does not matter.

Many have realized the problem for a long time, but legislation to help deal with the problem known as the Paycheck Fairness Act was blocked by Senate Republicans last week.

Catherine Hill, research director of the American Association of University Women, had hoped the bill would motivate employers to start addressing the issue of pay disparity. “The best employers are doing things they should when it comes to pay, but it would be a reminder for all those other employers to catch up,” she said.

The act would have forced employers to create more transparency when it comes to pay, and that's exactly what Jagsi said is needed to help narrow the wage gap.

Given her research, Jagsi believes the persistent disparity in pay in medicine, and other professions, could be a function of gender bias in the workplace. "It's important to consider the role of bias, but I think it much more likely hidden latent unconscious gender bias we all harbor."

Jagsi said she doesn't know if she's underpaid but she said she spoke to her departmental administrator Friday about standardizing the way employees are paid in order to provide transparency. He told her the issue is "very complicated."

To that, she responded, "We do a lot of things in medicine and in society that are complicated. I think our findings merit attention and action."

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