Female Doctors' Pay Still Falls Short -- Why?

Anne L. Finger, MA


May 15, 2015

In This Article

Are Women Being Singled Out?

Inevitably, the issue of discrimination arises in any discussion of gender disparity. Some female physicians believe that it exists, but others aren't so eager to ascribe pay differences to discrimination.

Roberta Gebhard, DO, a hospitalist in Jamestown, New York, who founded AMWA's Gender Equity Task Force, says discrimination is a fact of life for female physicians, though they often don't know they're being discriminated against. She believes that she has experienced it. Early in her career, she says, "I was working in a hospital in Montana and was dually certified in medicine and pediatrics." A young male physician was offered $20,000 more than she was earning.

When Dr Gebhard protested, the hospital raised her salary $20,000—but then upped the male doctor's salary by the same amount. "I had 4 years' experience and board certification," she says. "He had neither."

The Gender Equity Task Force, which Dr Gebhard now co-chairs, seeks to gather data that will promote understanding of the work habits, experiences, and needs of female physicians in order to counter stereotypes and misinformation, and to encourage networking, mentoring, and shared resources among female physicians.[7]

Leadership Positions Are Including More Women

One notable issue is the continuing dominance of men in leadership positions.

"It's not discrimination per se," says Christine Laine, MD, MPH, an internist who is editor-in-chief of the Annals of Internal Medicine and senior vice president of the American College of Physicians. In 1995, she was hired as the journal's first female associate editor. "Since I became editor-in-chief, we have at least as many women as men on our team," Dr Laine observes. "I don't think I was consciously saying, 'I'm going to hire women,' but women tend to think of other women. Men may be less aware of the capable women around them."

Dr Laine believes that an accelerated migration of women into leadership positions is inevitable. "In 1970, it was strange to see a woman as dean of a medical school. Now it's less strange, though there are fewer women deans than men. Eventually it won't be strange at all."

Mentoring, which has been touted as especially important for women seeking to enter the most male-dominated specialties, has made an impact on women in leadership.[8] Stephanie M. Cohen, MD, a plastic surgeon in Maywood, New Jersey, says that she longed for a mentor during those important years in medical school. "I wanted a surgeon who had a family and wasn't miserable all the time. I don't know why, but I couldn't find one." Now, Dr Cohen says, "I became that person." She is in an amicable, 50/50 partnership with a male plastic surgeon, and they have three residents annually whom she mentors. Over the years, she says, about 40% of their residents have been women.

Mentoring creates a widened circle of influence. It also affords women a greater knowledge about the likely compensation in a given position, numbers which are pretty easy to track down. "Check with the Association of American Medical Colleges to have a ballpark figure of what others are making," says Dr Laine.

And that leads to another reason that's been offered for the continuing pay gap: the belief that men tend to be better negotiators. According to Dr Laine, "I know that my female colleagues and I aren't as bold as men; women tend to be thrilled that they just want to hire us for a job." She always tells her young colleagues to get a pep talk before they enter a negotiating session. "Go in there and negotiate, and realize that there's always going to be more that you can get."

Unfortunately, that doesn't always work. Dr Gebhard reports that in one negotiating session, she said she wanted $20,000 more than she'd been offered. Although she said that she's a good negotiator and pushed hard several times, she was told that there was no more money. "But then a male colleague got $10,000 more." Good negotiating entails certain skills. There's some evidence that in society overall, a greater proportion of women are less assertive than many men.

Although this certainly doesn't apply to everyone, part of women's reluctance to ask for equal pay may be because they put slightly less emphasis on money than men do. Women who responded to the 2015 Medscape compensation survey weren't quite as apt as men to say that "making good money at a job that I like" was the most important aspect of their work: 11% of men gave that response, compared with 8% of women.


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