Female doctors earn $20K less than male colleagues

September 5, 2016

The findings may not come as a surprise to many in the medical community like Miriam Laugesen, MD-an associate professor of the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health-but even the smallest disparities build up in the bigger picture, she explains.

Female academic physicians in public institutions earn on average nearly $20,000 less per year than their male counterparts, according to a recent study.

 

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The  findings may not come as a surprise to many in the medical community like Miriam Laugesen, MD-an associate professor of the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health-but even the smallest disparities build up in the bigger picture, she explains.

“When you think about that $20,000 difference, and you compound it over 25 years, think about how much money that is over a lifetime,” Laugesen says. “That's a huge difference.”

The gap is not a new area of research, says Anupam Jena, MD, lead author of the study and an associate professor at Harvard Medical School. Previous analyses, Jena says, have been limited in various ways, such as focusing only on specific specialties, particular experience levels of physicians, or have been survey-based - and therefore their accuracy is less certain.

Although this analysis focuses on academic physicians, the issue expands beyond universities, he adds.

“I think that the problem that we outline is a universal problem,” Jena says, noting that it’s important to make an “apples to apples comparison.” However, finding measurable data can be “difficult” when looking at the many factors at play in finding an explanation for why the pay gap might have developed.

Indeed, previous research he co-authored shows that pay differences are present for practicing physicians as well, as one example. Kim Templeton, MD, president of the American Women's Medical Association and a professor of orthopedic surgery at the University of Kansas, shares Jena’s sentiments.

 

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“It's not just an issue in academics,” Templeton says. “It's an issue in private practice too, it's just the data for salary differential in private practice is much more difficult to obtain and there are a lot more moving parts.”

As for the wage gap occurring beyond the scope of academics, recent research also showed that female physicians receive less Medicare compensation. They earn $18,677 less, on average, than their male counterparts in 13 different specialties, according to a new analysis. Researchers looked at more than 3 million Medicare reimbursement claims in 2012, and adjusted for productivity, work hours, and experience level.

Next: A possible explaination for the gap

 

Jena’s study included data on more than 10,000 academic physicians at 24 public medical schools in 12 states where salaries were reported online. That data was linked with database information from Doximity, a networking service for clinicians.

The findings revealed that a near-$20,000 gap existed after accounting for factors such as age, experience, specialty and faculty rank, clinical revenue and research productivity. Before including those elements, the average salary for women was $206,641 and $257,957 for men.

Jena says what was “most striking” in the findings was that at some universities, the reverse effect was happening, where the adjusted salary of women was higher than men. “It suggests that in those schools, something differently is being done where the problem doesn't seem to be a big issue,” Jena says, declining to specify which institutions showed this trend.

 

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He did note the only specialty where this was occurring - radiology. Female radiologists  earned approximately $2,000 more than males. Templeton says it would be “extremely interesting” to explore the reasons why this is occurring, and whether actions are being taken consciously to impact change.

Another area the study cites is experience level, showing that women don't “catch up” financially as they move up in rank. Instead, female full professors were paid $250,971, which was nearly the same as male associate professors' compensation of $247,212. “I'm a tenured full professor, and yes that is frustrating,” Templeton says.

Possible explanations for the gap

There are numerous possible explanations for the pay difference, Templeton says, but one clear result is that women should be speaking up about salary.

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“It's women not being necessarily comfortable or being taught to be comfortable with negotiating … [and] again those that are in power and making decisions assuming that we are not going to negotiate,” she says.

Additionally, she argues, women are being pulled in different directions both in and out of the workplace, such as being “tasked with the academic responsibilities in their departments,” so they may not be seeing as many patients or doing as much research.

 

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Another common response to the wage gap is that women tend to choose lower-paying specialties, such as family practice or internal medicine. In response to that, Templeton cites  pay data within each specialty.

“When you look within those specialties and women still make less, that's a problem,” she says. “So I think continuing to use the argument of 'well women go into lower paying specialties,’ that doesn't fly. Because then why aren't they being paid as much as men in lower-paying specialties?” In her field of orthopedic surgery, the wage gap was almost $41,000.

Outlook

Laugesen calls the research “extremely useful” because it has “illuminated” new areas of future focus, such as evaluating private schools, which were not included in this analysis.

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“There is data which shows similar tendencies in private institutions, but you can't see what people who are at a similar level are making. So that would seem to be a desirable step,” she says. … I think that at each institution there needs to be a concerted effort to pull out all the data, to look at what the gaps are between different people, and make that data transparent.”

 

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Another area worth exploring, she says, is non-monetary perks, such as subsidized housing.

In the meantime, Templeton says there needs to be a national conversation on this topic, beginning with the academic community because that's where the best analysis is.

“This data is not new, but nothing has really ever happened,” Templeton says. “So, my hope is that there is going to be some change. As an orthopedic surgeon, no matter how long I look at an X-ray of a broken bone, just staring at it doesn't make it fixed. You need to go in and do something.”