Female physicians make $20,000 less than male peers, study finds

A recent JAMA Internal Medicine study shows female physicians are paid nearly $20,000 less than male counterparts, even accounting for factors like age and rank. 

PRNews Foto/ Houston Methodist Willowbrook
Staff at the Houston Methodist Willowbrook Hospital celebrate the opening of a new neurological 36-bed patient care unit. Female physicians at public medical schools receive salaries almost $20,000 lower than their male peers, according to a new study.

Female physicians at major public medical schools make nearly $20,000 less each year than their male peers, on average, according to a new study, the largest to date of earning differences among academic doctors. 

Even controlling for other factors that could affect salary, such as age, specialty, productivity, rank, and medicare payments, women earned $19,879 less than male physicians at the 24 schools included in the study, published Monday in the Journal of the American Medical Association. Without accounting for those factors, the total average gap was almost $52,000 per year. 

The researchers identify two sets of factors that could explain the pay gap. One set “focuses on factors that may lead to lower research and clinical productivity among women,” such as childrearing, work-life preferences, and inequitable allocation of funds and space. Another set controls for work performance, and suggests factors such as women physicians being less likely to receive positive recognition, more likely to be discriminated against, "and the possibility that women physicians may place less emphasis on salary negotiations compared with male counterparts in both initial and subsequent salary negotiations."

National discussion can help guide the country toward large-scale progress, like the federal Paycheck Fairness Act supported by Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, but the study's authors also suggest more grassroots solutions, such as transparency about salaries. Making information about pay publicly available "may compel institutions or specific departments within institutions to serially assess progress toward reducing sex differences in salary," they write.

But "lessons from the industry highlight that transparency in salaries between men and women is not enough," Vineet Arora, an associate professor of medicine at the University of Chicago, wrote in a commentary about the study. She urges hospitals to think about workplace-specific factors such as leadership and hospital culture, and to give potential solutions, such as "concerted efforts to promote women into senior leadership positions," a trial run. 

Bringing the issue to the public eye is “extremely helpful,” Kim Templeton, the president of American Medical Women’s Association and a professor of orthopedic surgery at the University of Kansas, which contributed data to the study, told The New York Times. “But just having it out there isn’t going to fix the problem.”

Some states have already implemented laws that could enforce institutional change. On January 1, California enacted the Fair Pay Act, which requires “equal pay for equal work” by expecting employers to prove that their compensation practices for similar roles are equitable, although critics say comparing job descriptions is laborious.

“What California’s Fair Pay Act will do … is make the state, already notorious for regulations and red tape, a more difficult place to do business,” Sarah Ketterer, founder of Causeway Capital Management, wrote in The Wall Street Journal.

Other laws could more indirectly narrow the gender pay gap, as The Christian Science Monitor's Schuyler Velasco reported in April:

The minimum wage is going up in several cities and states and among private businesses. This summer, the US labor department will update rules governing overtime pay, entitling workers who make less than $50,000 annually to extra pay for extra hours (the current threshold is about $24,000). That change could give a raise to nearly half of single working mothers in the US, according to one survey. And paid sick and family leave are catching on in a handful of US states, including California, Rhode Island, and New York.”

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