On Call but Paid Less: Female Doctors

A new study finds an 18% salary difference between male and female starting MDs, even though more women are new doctors than men now.

Pay equity has become a rallying cause in boardrooms, manufacturing floors, and corporate headquarters around the world. But apparently, the gap is still significant in a very high-profile profession: medical doctors.

Indeed, according to a report released in the journal Health Affairs covering nearly 20 years, female physicians’ starting salaries were 18% less—$36,618—than those of their male counterparts. “Healthcare, like so many other sectors, has had an issue with gender equity,” says Greg Button, president of Korn Ferry’s Global Healthcare Services practice. It’s ironic, he says, since many healthcare organizations are overwhelmingly women, and each year for the past several years more women than men have become doctors.

Doctors, of course, get paid more than most other professions. The median salary for doctors across the United States was $208,000 in 2018, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. In this study, covering 1999 to 2017, the researchers chose to focus on men and women who had recently accepted their first non-training roles to help minimize differences in work experience and productivity.

According to the report, the researchers say much of the gap goes unexplained. But experts say there’s considerable research that men often ask for higher salaries than women do, and that women could get better pay terms by negotiating. Other factors include one doctor may want to work less hours than another, and some doctors also might be able to see more patients than colleagues working the same hours.

But the biggest reason for pay difference can be a doctor’s specialty. Surgeons get paid more than general practitioners, for example. Experts say there are even some valid gender-related reasons for a pay difference. For instance, female gynecologists, on average, get paid more than male ones because patients are more comfortable with doctors of the same gender (the same is true of male urologists). Still, even after accounting for all those differences, nearly 40% of the gap goes unexplained, researchers say.

Either way, healthcare systems are more interested in pay issues than they have ever been, says Marc Hallee, a Korn Ferry senior client partner and co-lead of the firm’s Healthcare Provider Enterprise practice. Hallee says he recently did a pay equity study with a physician’s group because, on the surface, there were no good explanations as to why some of the group’s doctors were getting paid more than others.

Those types of pay studies can go a long way to normalizing pay, says Katie Bell, a Korn Ferry senior client partner and global account lead for the healthcare sector. “If they’re committed to having pay parity between male and female physicians, they can do that. But they’ll have to provide a little transparency,” she says.