She Said She Said – The Gender Gap Myth

Fred WhittleseyPay and Performance: The Compensation Blog0 Comments

“She said, you don’t understand what I said
I said no, no, no, you’re wrong”
She Said She Said
The Beatles (John Lennon)

A new research study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association concludes that female physicians are paid less than male physicians by about $12,000 per year, enough of a difference over a 30-year career that one of the study’s (female) authors claims “here in Michigan…buys a house” and “Anywhere…sends a kid to college” because” Even Women Doctors Can’t Escape the Pay Gap.”When I read this, $12,000 didn’t seem like a significant difference given what I know about physician pay levels.  I also know that it’s quite difficult to measure the earnings of physicians, for many reasons, and that if you just ask what a doc’s “salary” is you probably aren’t getting his or her real income number.

The research concluded that the $12,000 – by my calculations equal to about 6.3% of the weighted-average salary of the 800 doctors responding to the survey – is a genuine gender pay gap after twenty (yes, 20) variables are factored into the analysis. It is “statistically significant” which as we all know may or may not be significant. Knowing that it is possible to make statistics tell you just about anything you would like to hear, I looked at the actual research, which was based on a self-report survey of doctors.

In fact, the average male doctor pay level in the survey is 19.5% higher than the average female doctor pay level, and the data confirm that male doctors choose (or are chosen for) higher-paying specialties (like surgery) rather than lower-paying ones (women, children), work in higher-paying settings, work more hours per week (8.8% more hours/week on average), and have conducted and published more research.  I may be missing something but that sounds more like pay-for-skills-and-performance to me than a gender pay gap.

Even after accounting for these other variables, the researchers conclude that the 6.3% pay difference is indeed a gender-driven pay difference attributable to the lack of a Y chromosome.  Or maybe it’s because those more highly-paid doctors are researching medical issues, saving lives, and improving patients’ health rather than crunching self-reported salary data.  That probably sounds like my Y chromosome talking.

I’m not saying that there is no gender discrimination in the workplace, including healthcare settings, or that there is no gender-based pay discrimination anywhere.  I’m saying that compensation professionals need to be aware of and knowledgeable about these research studies and the resulting pop media headlines. We know how research and media can lead to legislation and regulation, with unintended consequences.

Maybe I should call the neurosurgeon (one of the highest-paying specialties) who performed my daughter’s brain surgery last week at Seattle Children’s Hospital and find out if she is underpaid.  I think she is the best of the dozen or so neurosurgeons performing the dozen or so brain surgeries over the past 7 years, and I think she should be the highest-paid of the bunch despite her apparent lack of the Y chromosome possessed by all of the other neurosurgeons there.  I wonder what she would say about this research.

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