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The Differential

Don't Discount Sexism in the Physician Gender Pay Gap

bfg9000, Medical Student, 04:16AM Feb 7, 2011

The story that made headlines last week was that the pay gap between male and female physicians is widening.  Even when specialty and work hours are accounted for, an unexplained $16,819 gap exists between newly trained men and women doctors.  The question remaining is why.

In a blog post about the topic, I wrote that perhaps the authors were a bit too quick to dismiss gender discrimination as a contributing factor.  (The pay gap was smaller in 1999, and they thought it unlikely that sexism had increased over the last decade.  They thus preferred the explanation that women are intentionally choosing lower-paying jobs because these jobs provide greater flexibility and family-friendly benefits, such as not being on call after certain hours.)

As a female who aspires not to be underpaid after graduating with hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt, I have a vested interest in thinking about these issues.  There are many, many reasons for the gender pay gap, as well as for the dearth of women in positions of higher status.  (For a great perspective on why we have too few women leaders, check out Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg's take on women's tendency to undervalue and second-guess themselves.)

The 16,000 dollar answer probably is a combination of societal and cultural norms, as well as intrinsic differences between the ways that men and women act in the workplace.  

Thankfully, I haven't experienced any discrimination in medical school.  This says a lot, since my "hyperfeminist" radar is particularly primed to notice anything.  I have only registered two subtle consistencies -- one intrinsic and one extrinsic to women:

1. Males ask more questions in lecture (though not in smaller group discussions).  Additionally, whenever four volunteers are needed for a demonstration during lecture, there are always one or zero girls represented (even though the class is 50% female).

2. Whenever we introduce ourselves in small groups, if there is a male on one side of the professor and a female on the other, the professor will always pick the male to begin introductions and go around the table from there.

These are small things, no doubt.  And they will probably never be accounted for in any study.  So, to leave you with a more egregious example:

My female friend at Yale was in her physics lab class, and her labmate was male.  One day, her labmate was having trouble solving a few equations, so my friend was helping him out.  As she was doing so, the professor walked by and said to her, "This part you should be doing alone; don't ask your partner for help."

This was in 2008, the same year the study found the $16,819 pay gap.  Hence my wariness about concluding that inequities are more likely the result of women's voluntary negotiations than about lingering biases.

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