Why Female Physician Researchers Earn Less than Males

June 21, 2012
Aubrey Westgate

Possible explanations why the average female physician researcher earns $350,000 less during a 30-year career than her male counterparts.

Female physician researchers are paid much less than males. The payment disparity is so wide, in fact, that the average female physician researcher earns $350,000 less during a 30-year career than a male physician researcher.

That’s according to a study recently published in the Journal of the American Medical Association(JAMA) and conducted by researchers at the University of Michigan Health System and Duke University. Overall, the study found that male physician researchers make an average of $12,194 more each year.

Most surprising is that the study finds that the payment disparity is not due to variations in experience, education, publications written, or research time. The 800 physicians surveyed shared the same educational level, were at the same career stage, and had achieved similar milestones.

The findings also suggest that the pay gap is not due to variations in physician specialty or hours worked. When these factors were considered, the results remained relatively the same.

Even parental status did not explain the payment disparity. The study’s lead author, Reshma Jagsi, an oncologist and associate professor at the University of Michigan, told JAMA that the women who participated in the study were less likely to be parents than the men. And even the childless women studied reported lower pay.

Of course, as is the case with all professions, gender bias may be playing a role in the physician payment gap.

“Studies show men and women are both more likely to hire a man than a woman and to give credit to a man,” Jagsi said, noting that an “unconscious” bias may play a part. “Employers may be thinking about a family wage, that a man needs to support a household. But it’s hard to justify the difference. These are men and women doing similar work at the same place in their career.”

But there may be other reasons for the disparity. Internal medicine physician and endocrinologist JoAnn Manson, chief of preventive medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and a Harvard Medical School professor, said that in general, women are less aggressive during pay negotiations than men, according to the Associated Press.

"Male faculty members are willing to negotiate more aggressively. It may be social and cultural. It seems to be fairly deep-rooted," she said, adding that more men than women ask her for raises and promotions.

The payment gap is not just confined to physician researchers. A study published last year in Health Affairs found that newly trained female physicians in New York state earned about $17,000 less than newly trained males.

Most troubling about that study, however, is that it found that the gender gap between male and female new physicians in 1999 was only about $3,600, which suggests that the payment disparity between male and female physicians is growing, not decreasing, as it is in most other fields.

How would you explain the payment disparity between physicians of different genders? Have you witnessed it firsthand?