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Stanford University School of Medicine

Why are female physicians paid less than male ones?

Numerous media outlets reported late last week on a study showing that a widening pay gap exists between male and female physicians. According to the research, which appears in the journal Health Affairs, female physicians entering the workforce made $16,819 less than their male counterparts in 2008, compared to $3,600 less in 1999.

Troubled by these findings, I turned to Stanford sociologist Shelley Correll, PhD, an expert in gender inequality. The most important thing to note, she said, is that - as the study authors themselves point out - the data don't tell us why this gap exists. The researchers accounted for specialty choice, practice setting, work hours and other factors and still couldn't explain the $16,819. "Discrimination is still a logical possibility," Correll said.

A reason once suspected for the discrepancy in pay - the greater tendency of women to pursue primary care instead of higher-paying medical specialties - seems to no longer be in play. (Thirty-four percent of women entered primary care in 2008, compared to 49 percent in 1999.) "The percentage of women in primary care is going down, so why should women's relative salary (compared to men's) also be going down? That's a puzzling thing about this paper," Correll told me.

The study authors hypothesized that more female physicians are accepting lower pay for flexible schedules or other family-friendly benefits, but Correll isn't so sure:

It seems logical to me that women might be more likely to seek out flexible arrangements, but it doesn't automatically follow that those arrangements should pay less once you control for whether the positions are part time, full time, etc.

And if it turns out that female physicians really are choosing more family-friendly types of jobs, is this a good thing? Correll's take:

I think the best thing would be if both men and women were choosing more family-friendly fields. This would mean that men were also prioritizing family, which would be good for kids, and men and women would be equally likely to be in higher- or lower-paying medical practices.

Clearly, more study in this area is needed. In the meantime, the study authors are encouraging "policy-makers, physician practice groups, and medical training programs [to] reconsider how they attract providers, how they construct their working arrangements, and how they pay."

Photo by Seattle Municipal Archives

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