If you were asked to imagine a prominent, wealthy doctor, who would come to mind? Chances are no matter whom you envision, they would have one thing in common: a Y chromosome, the defining genetic material of a man.
A new study found male physicians make $12,000 more per year than female doctors when adjusting for differences in specialties, work hours and academic rank. If you do the math, this amounts to more than $350,000 in the course of a career.
"With increased participation of women in medicine, I suspect that conscious discrimination is probably less likely to be a robust explanation for much of the differences in salary," said Dr. Reshma Jagsi, a radiation oncologist at the University of Michigan Health System and lead author of study published today in the Journal of the American Medical Association. "Instead, I think that an important reason for the difference may be unconscious gender bias."
These discrepancies in pay are no small deal. Medical school graduates can accumulate up to a quarter of a million dollars of debt from their training, and many doctors are stuck paying back their loans in the course of their careers. And with women now representing the majority of students entering medical school, the conversation around salary disparities is more relevant than ever.
"Over the last decade, even the last quarter century, there has been a huge increase in the number of women physicians," said Dr. Gayatri Devi, president of the American Medical Women's Association. "When I refer a patient to another doctor, I say, 'He or she,' because I can no longer make the assumption the doctor is going to be male."
In the past, differences in salaries between male and female physicians were attributed to life factors such as parental status and the subsequent need for flexible work schedules. But this study did not see those factors as explanatory; in fact, even women without children had lower pay than men.
Across broad fields, studies such as these have inspired the slogan "equal work, equal pay."
"A lot more advocacy needs to be done in this area," Devi said. "This means not just propelling women into higher ranks and leadership positions, but also putting our money where our mouth is, paying women their worth."
But not all researchers think female physicians are getting the shaft.
"If [female physicians] are in a position to bargain for other job amenities such as reduced home call, that has a value," said Dr. Anthony LoSasso, a researcher at the University of Illinois who has also published on the topic. "Maybe it's a trade-off that's worthwhile ... maybe it's a good thing."
While there might be methods of reimbursement outside of pay, some point out that there also might be costs outside of pay.
"A woman physician is more likely to be single, divorced, or not have children," Devi said. "These costs are important in terms of how we measure our life satisfaction. There are costs that the woman physician is experiencing that are not being factored into this equation."