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Financial Survey: Women gain ground


Female physicians still trail male colleagues in key financial areas. But the news isn&t all bad.


Financial Survey

Women gain ground

Jump to:
Choose article section...Disparities linger in earnings and assets More women than men are planning an early exit Female physicians' portfolios still lag males' How female doctors are boosting income Vital signs The retirement stash Other investments Asset imbalance Who are the biggest savers?

Female physicians still trail male colleagues in key financial areas. But the news isn't all bad.

By Doreen Mangan

The once-yawning financial gap between female doctors and their male brethren is narrowing—on several counts, anyway. Their median net worth has climbed since the mid-1980s, from one-third that of men's to almost half. Median family income, previously about half of men's, reached 94 percent in our latest Financial Survey of mostly primary care doctors, conducted late last year.

The gap may never completely close for doctors like one Oregon internist, who cut back her hours and patient load several years ago. Her compensation is based on productivity, so she earns less than some of her colleagues. "I'm happy, though, because I spend more time with each patient and I see more of my two young children," she says.

Still, overall the numbers are positive, and that makes sense. By now, the typical female physician has been practicing longer than her 1980s counterpart had, and she has more earning power. The median age of women and men who responded to our recent survey was 44. In a 1986 poll, it was about 39 for women and 46 for men. Plus, fewer of the female physicians now are under 35 than they were in the 1980s.

Female doctors' family income is higher now, too, because fewer are single—almost three out of four are married, vs three out of five in 1986.

More women than men (40 vs 36 percent) believe their overall financial situation was better last year than in 1999, and more women respondents had gains in investment and family income than the men in our sample.

Disparities linger in earnings and assets

Despite increasing signs of financial equality, the typical female doctor still earns less than her male colleagues. In 1999, net income for female nonsurgical physicians was 77 percent of men's, according to the Medical Economics Continuing Survey.

That discrepancy may not change anytime soon. "I don't think it's discrimination," says Patricia F. Baran, an Oak Ridge, NJ, pediatrician. "Male and female doctors get equal pay for equal work." But women tend to balance family and career more, she points out. Many female physicians work fewer hours when raising children and as a result earn less, says Baran, who graduated from medical school in 1972. "Because of family obligations, they're less likely to take positions with more responsibility, and they're less likely to specialize. Specializing would require more years of training that may last until age 33 or 34; by that time, the biological clock is ticking."

Baran would have liked to do a fellowship in pediatric endocrinology while her husband finished his radiology training. Instead, in 1976 she went into full-time practice for a year to save money for a down payment on a house, and she had her first baby. Because she wanted more time with her children, after that year Baran built a flexible schedule of part-time teaching, practicing two days a week, and doing some public health work. As a result, she never earned more than $100,000, and often made much less.

But, she says, "It was perfect. After my kids were born, I never had to work nights or weekends. I was happy with less work and less pay."

The Oregon physician we mentioned earlier also made a professional sacrifice to focus on family. When she found herself overextended, she decided to reduce her call duty and work fewer hours. "I see 18 scheduled patients between 8 am and 5 pm, four days a week," the doctor says. She does paperwork on the fifth day. "If I saw patients five days a week, I'd be dead," she says. Besides creating more family time, that schedule allows her to spend more time with each patient. "Some doctors see 40 patients a day, but I couldn't do that," she says.

Even though this internist is earning less than she could, she's content. "We moved to Oregon from the Northeast because the cost of living here is so much less," she notes. "We were paying $1,600 a month for child care; here we pay $600."

Women's lower income reverberates on several levels. Their median home equity, for example, trails that of men. Only 86 percent of our survey's female respondents own their homes, as opposed to 93 percent of the males. Still, female doctors have made progress: In 1986, only 75 percent of the women surveyed owned homes, while 94 percent of the males did.

Males are ahead in ownership of other real estate (40 vs 24 percent), too. And they're more likely than women to own their medical offices, though that's a less common asset among both sexes these days.

Sometimes equality is undesirable, though. Women physicians' median debt level, $175,000, is closing in on male doctors' $187,000. In 1986, it was 30 percent lower than men's.

The Oregon internist, for example, is struggling to feel comfortable with a $250,000 debt load that includes a $204,000 mortgage and a practice buy-in loan. "We're finally at the point where we're not spending more than we're making, and soon we'll start saving for retirement and the kids' college," she says. To get to this point, though, "we made a conscious decision to buy an inexpensive house. It's nice, but there are no granite countertops." The family lives simply. "I bought a few nice clothes last year, and now I'm almost sorry I did," she says. "I'm sure we'll meet our goals, but there's no boat in our future."

More women than men are planning an early exit

About 24 percent of female respondents hope to retire by age 59, compared with 15 percent of the men. In fact, 14 percent of the women hope to hang up their stethoscopes at 55; only 8 percent of men would quit then. One ambitious Oklahoma internist in her late 30s, who wants to retire at 50, is saving hard. Last year, she applied 60 percent of her total family income of $250,000 to savings and investments.

She's an exception, however. Women respondents' retirement savings substantially trail those of men. Although 68 percent of women reported having retirement plans at work (fewer than half did in 1986), their savings in those plans come to only 21 percent of the male doctors'. Only 2 percent of the women who responded have retirement assets in those plans of $1 million or more, whereas 15 percent of the men do. Among women funding a retirement plan, the median contribution last year was $10,000, compared with $15,000 for the men.

Almost half the women have invested most of their retirement funds in equities. About one-quarter said their plans are split equally between equities and income investments, such as bonds, money-market funds, and life insurance. The balance of the women put their retirement funds mostly in income investments. Overall, men were a bit more aggressive, putting more into equities.

Only 42 percent of women had a gain last year in their retirement portfolios. Thirty-seven percent had a loss, and the balance reported no change.

More women than men say they have Roth IRAs. That's not surprising, given that overall, women earn less than men and therefore are more likely to be eligible to contribute to a Roth. Currently, the maximum Roth contribution begins phasing out when a single taxpayer's income reaches $95,000 or when a married couple filing jointly earns $150,000.

Female physicians' portfolios still lag males'

More women than men (44 vs 34 percent) reported a gain in nonretirement investments in 1999. Their median investment equity is $90,000, almost triple the amount in 1986. Still, that statistic for men is $250,000. Forty-seven percent of men had losses, while 33 percent of women did. The median gain for both was 10 percent; the median loss, 15 percent.

One California doctor's biggest investment success was the 7 percent she earned on a certificate of deposit. Her other investments lost 8 percent, or $30,000.

Overall, last year, women invested conservatively. Only 15 percent bought stock or stock mutual funds, compared with 78 percent of men; and 15 percent bought bonds or bond funds, compared with 77 percent of men.

This year may be different, however. Although about 42 percent of both the male and female doctors will buy bonds in 2001, about 90 percent of both sexes indicate they'll buy stocks. "But not as many dot-coms," says one Oklahoma doctor who enjoyed a 6 percent gain last year despite those shaky investments.

A Washington pediatrician who had 33 percent of her stocks in risky issues such as dot-coms and IPOs lost 13 percent last year. Now she vows to diversify better, and may add real estate.

How female doctors are boosting income

Like their male colleagues, many female doctors are working to enhance practice income, which has been feeling managed care pressures. Almost half say they'll cut practice expenses, almost one-third are offering additional services, and 37 percent say they'll renegotiate contracts.

Some women are taking on more duties. For example, Elizabeth M. Strauch, a Houston internist, has agreed to become medical director at the hospice that employs her. The job's administrative and teaching duties should bump up her income by 20 percent.

Troy, NY, internist Vina Patel boosted her income 15 percent last year when she moved from solo practice to a group setting, a move that cut her overhead and allows her to see more patients and earn more, she says. With retirement on their minds, this 60-year-old doctor and her surgeon husband invested $400,000 in a multilevel marketing business, selling herbal products. That was a year ago. "We've already recovered most of that money," Patel says. "Our five-year goal is to earn more from that business than we do as doctors."


Vital signs

Family income (practice income as % of total)
$170,000 (75%)
$180,000 (90%)
Net worth
Expected net worth at 65
Home market value (% who own)
275,000 (86%)
300,000 (93%)
Home equity
Medical office equity
100,000 (12%)
150,000 (30%)
Mortgage and other debts


The retirement stash

More than 50 percent of women, as well as men, favor 401(k) plans for their practice retirement funds. The next most popular savings vehicle is the profit-sharing plan.

Even though more female than male doctors are aiming to retire early, the women’s nest eggs are considerably smaller.

Have a practice retirement plan
Median contribution last year
Median current value
Have Roth IRA
Have other IRA


Other investments

Median equity
% who own
Median equity
% who own
Stocks and stock mutual funds
Bonds and bond funds
Other income investments
Vacation home
Other real estate
Art, antiques, collectibles
Sideline business


Asset imbalance

Net worth
$2,000,000 or more
Less than 300,000

*Percentages total more than 100 because of rounding.


Who are the biggest savers?

Family income saved
30% or more
Less than 5


The author is a former Senior Editor of Medical Economics.


Doreen Mangan. Financial Survey: Women gain ground. Medical Economics 2001;15:22.

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