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Female doctors earn less than male doctors -- and that's a good thing, researchers say

February 03, 2011|By Karen Kaplan, Los Angeles Times

Women who are just starting out in their medical careers earn less money than their male counterparts. And that's probably a good thing, according to a study published Thursday in the journal Health Affairs.

Let me explain.

It's well known that women tend to earn less than men even when they're in the same jobs. As of 2009, the so-called gender wage gap was nearly 23%, meaning that for each dollar earned by men, women earned only 77 cents.

When it comes to doctors, there are several explanations for the pay gap. For instance, women are more likely to go into primary care fields such as internal medicine, family practice and pediatrics that pay less than specialties such as cardiology, radiology and orthopedic surgery. In addition, many women choose to work fewer hours than men, resulting in lower pay.

When these kinds of factors were taken into account, the researchers found no difference between starting salaries for male and female doctors in 1999. But when they looked at data from 2008, there was a $16,819 gap.

What's going on?

Could the pay differential reflect the fact that more men have been in the profession longer and thus have more seniority, on average, than women? No, because the researchers limited their analysis to doctors who had just finished their residency or fellowship training and were about to start their first real jobs. (The data came from 8,233 young physicians who completed their training between 1999 and 2008 in New York state, home to more residents and fellows than any other state.)

Could the pay gap reflect the fact that women choose lower-paying specialties than men? No, because the statistical analysis controlled for that. Besides, the researchers said, over the course of the study the proportion of women choosing primary care positions fell from 49% in 1999 to 34% in 2008, at which point it was roughly equal to that of men. In any event, the data revealed a gender pay gap in almost every specialty. (One exception was general surgery -- the average starting salary for women was $196,721, nearly $11,000 higher than the $185,881 earned by men.)

Could the difference reflect a bias in favor of male doctors? Unlikely, according to the researchers -- once the pay gap had disappeared in the late 1990s, there's little reason to think it would return a decade later.

The answer, they speculate, is that women are choosing lower-paying jobs on purpose because they offer greater flexibility in hours and are generally more family-friendly. The researchers acknowledge they don't have the data to prove that this is the case, but the data they do have is consistent with this theory.

If so, they say, that would be a victory for women (and even men.) Studies show that many doctors are burned out and would rather take jobs that allow them to have a good quality of life. Now -- thanks in large part to the growing ranks of female doctors -- such jobs are available. They just come with lower salaries.

“Instead of being penalized because of their gender, female physicians may be seeking out employment arrangements that compensate them in other -- nonfinancial -- ways, and more employers may be beginning to offer such arrangements," the researchers wrote.

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