The XX Factor

The Gender Pay Gap for Doctors is Atrocious

Lol at this paystub.

Comstock images / Thinkstock

Be they pediatricians or cardiologists, just starting their careers or at the tops of their fields, female doctors are paid significantly less than their male counterparts.

In a new study published Monday in JAMA Internal Medicine, researchers from Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital compiled a sweeping, diverse dataset in their effort to diagnose the true extent of the pay gap in medicine, analyzing the salaries of 10,241 academic physicians at 24 public medical schools across the country. The results were disheartening. Even after adjusting for the factors that can determine compensation—such as “age, experience, specialty, faculty rank, and measures of research productivity and clinical revenue,” which include how many patients a doctor sees and how often he or she publishes research—the average pay gap between men and women was $19,878 a year. Before adjusting for those factors, the absolute gap between the earnings of male and female doctors averaged $51,315 a year.

The disparity is not only egregious but, evidence suggests, perhaps even worsening, as University of Chicago medical professor Vineet Arora wrote in an editorial published alongside the study. She cited a 2011 paper’s findings that the pay differential for newly trained male and female doctors in New York State went from $3,600 in 1999 to nearly $17,000 in 2008.

The degree of the problem varies across different specialties, though overall, as The New York Times reports, full female professors are paid equivalent to male associate professors: roughly $250,000 a year. But the Times continues:

After adjusting for a variety of factors, the researchers found that female neurosurgeons and cardiothoracic surgeons and women in other surgical subspecialties made roughly $44,000 less than comparable men in those fields. The average pay gap between female and male orthopedic surgeons was nearly $41,000. The difference was about $38,000 among oncologists and blood specialists, about $36,000 among obstetrician-gynecologists and $34,000 among cardiologists.

For reasons not yet understood, one specialty appears to have eradicated the gap: radiology, in which women’s adjusted average salary topped men’s by about $2,000 a year. Two of the 24 universities in the study also paid men and women equally across the board, though the researchers declined to name them. In the interest of progress, it seems vitally important for those institutions to come forward and explain how they achieved what has evaded the rest of the field. As Arora asks in her editorial, “What policies, procedures, leadership, or culture at these sites helps to counteract a gender pay gap?”

Arora raises a few possible explanations for the gap—such as the vast research showing that women are more hesitant to negotiate salary, and more likely to be penalized if they do—and some suggestions for closing it, such as the idea that high-performing doctors who don’t aggressively pursue counteroffers from other institutions, which women are less likely to do, should receive a “loyalty bonus” from their employers. The study provides no answers, but it conveys the urgency of finding a solution to the medical pay gap. It’s a complicated dilemma, but it ain’t brain surgery.