The “Feminization” of Medicine has Widened the Gender Pay Gap

Dr. Michelle Cohen (pictured left), a family physician from Brighton, Ontario guest blogs today. Opinions are hers (although in this case I share them). This article was initially published in the Medical Post and is reproduced here, with her permission, so that it is “ungated” and available for all.

What happens when certain types of medical work become synonymous with women’s work?

Women have moved into medicine in huge numbers over the past four decades. This is usually viewed as a good news story of social progress in a profession that had either banned or severely restricted female entry well into the 1960’s.

In this excellent paper by Dr. Elaine Pelley and Dr. Molly Carnes, the authors begin with a discussion on gender segregation in the broader workforce (in the US). It generally decreased thought the 20th century  with the entry of women into the workplace, but then stalled in the mid-90’s and ticked back upwards slightly.

When a large number of women enter a previously male dominated occupation, it will quickly move towards female predominance. This phenomenon is known as “tipping” and it has not been shown to happen in reverse (i.e., men don’t tend to take over fields seen as “women’s work”). When an occupation hits the gender tipping point (which varies roughly from 13-45% female), entry of men rapidly declines. This is the pattern demonstrated by teachers, secretaries, bank tellers, etc.

In academia and professions requiring high educational attainment, a tipping phenomenon occurs at 24% female. In other words, once a field is one quarter female, men start to lose interest in it. It loses prestige and the ineffable qualities granted by gender exclusivity.

What’s the evidence that a field loses prestige with female entry? At around the 38% female mark, interest from both men and women starts to decline. Research also shows an inverse relationship between how challenging a field seems and how many female PhDs are in it.

This is where we need to talk about the #GenderPayGap. Because not only do female dominated occupations earn less than male dominated occupations, historical data shows that each 10% increase in female share results in a 0.5-5% decline in earnings.

The gender pay gap is at its simplest about paying women less for equal work. But the gendering of occupations plays a major (and often overlooked) role. Research on high skill occupations shows men essentially take a pay cut when they enter female dominated professions.

This brings us to medicine. A profession with dramatic gender segregation among its specialties and little-to-no introspection on the impact of this phenomenon. In Canada, female representation among medical specialties varies from roughly 10% to 75%.

Historically, once women were allowed into medical school, they were immediately shunted into the specialties that seemed appropriate. Ones that involved babies or so-called “soft skills” like counseling. They were strongly discouraged from entering macho fields like surgery.

I say “historically” but of course, these ideas remain as strong as ever (that’s what happens when your industry lacks introspection on its own subculture). Ask any woman in medicine and she will tell you lots of stories like this one.

Naturally, we lack data on the gender segregation of specialties over time. If you can’t see a phenomenon, you can’t study it, right? Fortunately, Dr. Pelley and Dr. Carnes dig into historical data, showing that U.S. gender segregation in medical specialties has remained static since the 80’s—that’s my entire lifetime. American medicine has remained frozen in the same sexist ideas about women and men’s “natural” skills since the Reagan years.

Is Canadian medicine any better? We haven’t analyzed historical data (yet), but I think you know what I would say.

This paper does what few have: It looks at how feminization of a specialty impacts its relative earnings over time. This is such an important analysis and I can’t believe we don’t have more like these.

For example, pediatrics went from 22% to 63% female since 1975, but orthopedics has remained nearly the same. Subsequently, pediatrics went from earning 93% of the average MD salary to 71%. Meanwhile orthopedics went from 160% to 180% of average. Or consider obstetrics and urology. Obstetrics has lost relative income since the 70’s while going from 8% to 57% female. Meanwhile, urology has maintained its relative earnings (125% of average MD salary) while remaining at >90% male.

While I haven’t looked at historical data in Canadian medicine, I have done a lot of work analyzing the gender breakdown in specialties and their relative incomes. Those results will be published next month, but let me summarize it quickly now:

Gender segregation in Canadian medical specialties is a major factor in the gender pay gap. There are many other relevant factors at play, but the shunting of women into “female-friendly” specialties while discouraging entry into male dominated specialties plays a huge role.

We need more discussion on how women entering a field devalues it. We also need to broaden this analysis to include all of health care, which is full of women doing vitally important and shamefully underpaid work.

Author: justanoldcountrydoctor

Practicing rural family medicine since 1992. I still have active privileges at the Collingwood Hospital. Immediate Past-President of the Ontario Medical Association.

2 thoughts on “The “Feminization” of Medicine has Widened the Gender Pay Gap”

  1. You need *more discussion* on how women entering the field devalues it? Decades upon decades of feminist scholarship on this topic won’t do?


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s