Early in Career, Female Academic Docs Earn Less Than Males: Study

Aine Cryts

February 19, 2022

Researchers point the finger squarely at starting salaries for physicians as the reason women earn less than their male peers in academic medicine, according to a new study. Worse still, the earning potential of women in most specialties is $214,440 (or 10%) less than their male colleagues over the course of the first 10 years of their careers in academic medicine.

Doctors

Among the vast majority of subspecialties, women’s starting salaries and their salaries 10 years into their careers were lower than their male colleagues in academic medicine, per the study in JAMA Network Open.

Eva Catenaccio, MD, an epilepsy fellow at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, and the lead author of the study, told Medscape Medical News that the gender disparities in earning potential are “pervasive in academic medicine.” These earnings disparities, which occur in nearly all subspecialties and can reach hundreds of thousands of dollars in the first 10 years of an academic physician’s career, “are largely the result of gender differences in annual salary that start immediately after training,” she said.

Changing the timing of academic promotion and equalizing starting salary and salary growth can help close the salary gap, said Catenaccio.

The study also reveals that women could face a 1-year delay in promotion from assistant to associate professor compared with men. This delay could reduce female physicians’ earning potential by a 10-year median of $26,042 (or 2%), whereas failure to be promoted at all could decrease the 10-year earning potential by a median of $218,724 (or 13%).

Across medicine more broadly, male physicians continue to earn 35% more than their female colleagues, according to the 2021 Medscape Physician Compensation Report. The biggest differences in take-home pay exist between male and female specialists, per the report. On average, male physicians earn $376,000, while women’s take-home pay is $283,000.

Medical Schools and Hospital Leaders Have a Role to Play

The earning potential during the first 10 years of post-training employment by gender was the most dramatic in neurosurgery, orthopedic surgery, and cardiology, per the study. Three subspecialties where women and men have similar earning potential include pediatric nephrology, pediatric neurology, and pediatric rheumatology.

The coauthors note that it’s commonly understood that women don’t negotiate as often or as successfully as their male colleagues. A 2019 study in JAMA Surgery of 606 male and female surgery residents revealed that while residents of both genders shared similar career goals, women had lower future salary expectations and a significantly more negative view of the salary negotiation process.

Catenaccio and her coauthors acknowledge that negotiation skills and financial literacy should be taught during medical school and postgraduate training. “However, the onus for ensuring salary equity should not fall on the individual candidate alone; rather, departmental and hospital leadership should take responsibility to ensure uniform starting salaries and prevent gender-based inequalities,” they wrote in the study.

“We hope that this study encourages academic medical institutions to increase transparency and equity around compensation, particularly for junior faculty,” Catenaccio told Medscape Medical News. “This will require both ensuring equal starting salaries and providing periodic adjustments throughout individuals’ careers to prevent divergence in earning potential by gender or any other individual characteristics.”

Harold Simon, MD, MBA, vice chair for faculty for the department of pediatrics and professor of pediatrics and emergency medicine at Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia, told Medscape Medical News that “[i]ncreased transparency around compensation can enable women to advocate for equitable pay. However, the burden for ensuring equity should not fall on individuals, but instead must be the primary responsibility of academic institutions.”

Specifically, Simon advocates for hospital leaders to “ensure equity among providers including compensation [as] a crucial part of maintaining a diverse workforce and, ultimately, providing balanced access to healthcare for patients.”

In addition, the authors call for periodic compensation evaluations and adjustments to help prevent gender-based salary differences among female and male physicians in academia. “This is absolutely necessary, both to develop future compensation plans and to address any preexisting gender-based salary inequities for those women currently well into their careers,” they wrote in the study.

Data analysis was conducted from March to May 2021. Researchers used models to estimate the impacts of promotion timing and potential interventions, which include equalizing starting salaries and annual salary rates.

The study included compensation data for 24,593 female and 29,886 male academic physicians across 45 subspecialties. It relied on publicly available data from the Association of American Medical Colleges’ annual Medical School Faculty Salary Survey report.

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