Why Aren't More Women Doctors in the Top-Paying Specialties?

Christine Lehmann, MA

August 11, 2021

Less than 1 in 5 women physicians are practicing in the top five high-paying specialties. Women compose only 6% of orthopedic surgeons, 8% of interventional cardiologists, 10% of urologists, 17% of plastic surgeons, and 18% of otolaryngologists, according to the 2020 AAMC Physician Specialty Data Report.

Plastic surgeons earn an average of $526,000 annually, which is the highest-paying specialty. Otolaryngologists earn an average of $417,000 annually, and urologists earn $427,000, according to the Medscape Physician Compensation Report 2021: The Recovery Begins.

Yet, far more women are practicing in specialties that pay less. Women are the majority in pediatrics (64%), obstetrics/gynecology (59%), internal medicine (53%), and endocrinology (51%), the AAMC data show. The exception is dermatology, which pays well and in which 51% are women. The annual average pay is $394,000.

Why are so many women avoiding the top-paying specialties?

Several physician researchers and leaders in the top-paying specialties point to four main factors: women are attracted to specialties that have more women in faculty and leadership positions; women prioritize work/life balance over pay; women residents may be deterred from the high-paying specialties because of gender discrimination and sexual harassment; and the longer training periods for surgical specialties may be a deterrent for women who want to have children.

Lack of Women Leaders

The specialties with the most women tend to have the highest proportion of women in leadership positions. For example, obstetrics and gynecology had the highest proportion of women department chairs (24.1%) and vice chairs (38.8). Pediatrics had the highest proportion of women division directors (31.5%) and residency program directors (64.6%), a study shows.

Surgical specialties, on the other hand, may have a harder time attracting female residents, possibly because of a lack of women in leadership positions. A recent study that examined gender differences in attitudes toward surgery training found that women would be more likely to go into surgery if there were more surgical faculty and residents of their same gender.

An analysis of orthopedic residency programs shows that more trainees were drawn to programs that had more female faculty members, including associate professors and women in leadership positions.

Dr Terri Malcolm

Terri Malcolm, MD, a board-certified ob/gyn and CEO/founder of Master Physician Leaders, says women need to consider whether they want to be a trailblazer in a specialty that has fewer women. "What support systems are in place to accommodate your goals, whether it's career advancement, having a family, or mentorship? Where can you show up as your whole self and be supported in that?"

Being the only woman in a residency program can be a challenge, says Malcolm. If the residents and attendings are predominantly men, for example, they may not think about creating a call schedule that takes into account maternity leave or the fact that women tend to be caretakers for their children and parents.

The study of gender differences toward surgery training shows that 75% of women, in comparison with 46% of men, would be more willing to enter surgery if maternity leave and childcare were made available to female residents and attending physicians.

Women Want Work/Life Balance

Although both men and women want families, women still shoulder more family and childcare responsibilities. That may explain why women physicians ranked work/life balance first and compensation second in the Medscape Women Physicians 2020 Report: The Issues They Care About.

"My physician colleagues have been and are supportive of intellectual abilities, but I feel they don't fully understand the uneven distribution of childcare issues on women," a woman dermatologist commented.

Dr Julie Samora

Women may want to work fewer hours or have a more flexible schedule to take care of children. "I can count on one hand the number of women who have a part-time job in orthopedics. It's very rare, and working part-time absolutely is a barrier for someone who wants to be a surgeon," says Julie Samora, MD, PhD, a researcher and pediatric hand surgeon at Nationwide Children's Hospital, in Columbus, Ohio. She is also a spokesperson for the American Association of Orthopedic Surgeons (AAOS).

Preeti Malani, MD, a professor of medicine who specializes in infectious diseases at the University of Michigan, chose to work full-time in academia while raising two children with her husband. In a decade, she rose through the ranks to full professor. "I took the advice of a woman who wanted to recruit me to have a full-time position with maximum flexibility rather than work part-time, often for more hours and less pay. I also have tried to build my career so I was not doing all clinical work."

Her husband is a surgeon at the University of Michigan. His schedule was not flexible, and he was unable to take on family responsibilities, says Malani. "I knew someone had to be able to grab the kids from daycare or pick them up at school if they were sick," she said. She also took work home and worked weekends.

Young women physicians in particular are thinking about combining parenting with work ― in the Medscape report, that issue ranked third among the issues women care about. Seeing other women doctors navigate that in their particular specialty can have a positive impact.

"When I chose adolescent medicine, I remember working with a doctor in this field who talked about how much she enjoyed raising her kids even as teenagers and how much she was enjoying them as young adults. She seemed so balanced and happy in her family, and it gave me a nice feeling about the field," says Nancy Dodson, MD, MPH, a pediatrician specializing in adolescent medicine at Pediatrics on Hudson in New York.

Rachel Zhuk, MD, a reproductive psychiatrist in New York City, took a break after medical school to spend time with her newborn son. She met a woman who was also a young parent and a psychiatrist. "We were both figuring out parenting together ― it was like looking into my future." That friendship and her desire to have more time with patients influenced her decision to pursue psychiatry instead of internal medicine.

Discrimination and Harassment Influence Specialty Choice

Women doctors in the top-paying surgical and other specialties have reported experiencing more discrimination and harassment than men.

Of 927 orthopedic surgeons who responded to an AAOS survey, 66% said they experienced gender discrimination, bullying, sexual harassment, or harassment in the healthcare workplace. More than twice as many women (81%) experienced these behaviors as men (35%).

"This study shows that women in orthopedic surgery disproportionately experience these negative behaviors, and only a handful of institutions in the United States provide any type of training to prevent them," says Samora, the lead author of the AAOS report.

Radiology is another male-dominated field ― women represent 26% of all radiologists, the 2020 AAMC specialty report shows. A systematic review shows that 40% of women radiologists experienced gender discrimination at work, compared to 1% of men, and that 47% of women experienced sexual harassment.

Female trainees in surgery have also reported disproportionate rates of discrimination and harassment. Female general surgical residents have experienced more gender discrimination than male residents (65.1% vs 10.0%) and more sexual harassment than male residents (19.9% vs 3.9), a national survey indicates.

When medical students are exposed to these behaviors through personal experience, witnessing, or hearing about them, it can affect which specialty they choose. A survey of fourth-year medical students shows that far more women than men reported that exposure to gender discrimination and sexual harassment influenced their specialty choices (45.3% vs 16.4%) and residency rankings (25.3% vs 10.9%). Women who chose general surgery were the most likely to experience gender discrimination and sexual harassment during residency selection; women who chose psychiatry were the least likely to experience such behaviors, the report shows.

"If young trainees witness such behaviors in a specific field, they would naturally migrate toward a different specialty," says Samora.

Trainees can also be put off by residency directors asking them inappropriate questions. Of nearly 500 female orthopedic surgeons surveyed, 62% reported that they were asked inappropriate questions during their residency interviews. "Inappropriate questions and comments directed toward women during residency interviews are clearly not conducive to women entering the field," the authors state. They found that little changed during the study period from 1971 to 2015.

The most frequent inappropriate questions concerned whether the prospective residents would be getting pregnant or raising children during residency and their marital status. One female orthopedic surgeon reported, "I was asked if I have children and was told that it would be too difficult to complete an orthopedic residency with children."

The interviewers also made frequent comments about the inferiority of women to men. For example, "I was told by one program interviewer that 'I don't have a bias about women in medicine, I have a bias about women in orthopedic surgery,' " another female orthopedic surgeon commented.

Longer Training

Residency training for the top-paying surgical specialties, including orthopedic surgery, plastic surgery, and otolaryngology, lasts 5 to 6 years. This compares to 3 to 4 years for the lower-paying specialties, such as pediatrics, internal medicine, and obstetrics-gynecology, according to data from the American Medical Association.

Women doctors are in their prime childbearing years during residency. Women who want to start a family will consider whether they want to get pregnant during residency or wait until they finish their training, says Malcolm.

The vast majority (84%) of 190 female orthopedic surgery trainees who responded to a survey indicated that they did not have children or were pregnant during residency. Nearly half (48%) reported that they had postponed having children because they were in training.

"The longer training is definitely a concerning issue for women of childbearing age. Many professional women are waiting to have children, for multiple reasons, but one major fear is the stigma due to taking time off from work obligations. There is a risk of irritating your peers because they may have to take on more work and cover more calls for you during your absence," says Samora.

That fear is not unfounded. At least half of the 190 female orthopedic residents reported that they encountered bias against becoming pregnant during training from both co-residents (60%) and attendings (50%), according to the study.

Another recent survey suggests that pregnant surgical residents face several barriers during their training, including a lack of salary for extended family leave, resentment from fellow residents who need to cover for them during maternity leave, and a lack of formal lactation policies.

A few policy changes by national board organizations, including those in the surgical specialties, may make life a little easier for female trainees to have children, suggests Samora.

Residents and fellows are now allowed a minimum of 6 weeks away for medical leave or caregiving once during training, without having to use vacation or sick leave and without having to extend their training, the American Board of Medical Specialties has announced.

In addition, the American Board of Orthopaedic Surgery and the American Board of Surgery have enacted policies that allow lactating women to take a break to pump during their board exams.

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