Women in Physics and Medicine: Closing the Gender Pay Gap, Increasing Respect, and Decreasing Burnout

New studies on women in physics and medicine find continuing disparities in pay and promotions. Audrey Williams June, writing for the Chronicle of Higher Education, reports the results of a new study by the Statistical Research Center at the American Institute of Physics showing a gender pay gap of 6 percent for female faculty members in physics. The study also found that men are overrepresented in senior faculty roles and that women receive fewer grants for research and lab space. For women in medicine, the issues can be severe. Dhruv Khullar of the New York Times reports that female physicians

  • are more than twice as likely to commit suicide as the general population;
  • earn significantly less than male colleagues
  • are less likely to advance to professorships; and
  • account for only one-sixth of medical school deans.
Khullar notes that gender bias begins to impact women physicians during medical residency training and continues throughout their careers. He points out that the structure of medical training and practice has not changed much since the 1960s, when almost all medical residents were men and only 7 percent of medical school graduates were women. Today women account for more than one-third of practicing physicians and one-half of physicians in residency training. Unchanged training structures that assume a stay-at-home spouse to support a trainee’s eighty-hour-work week create work-family conflicts for women. The combination of work-family conflicts and embedded gender discrimination in the profession takes a toll on women’s lives and careers in some of the following ways:
  • In households where both spouses are doctors, women with children work eleven hours less per week, while there is no difference in the hours worked by men with children. This statistic reflects the greater responsibility that women doctors carry for family care that their spouses do not share equitably.
  • Female physicians are more likely to divorce than male physicians.
  • For female physicians, getting patients and other doctors to show them respect by calling them “doctor” is a battle. Women physicians are assumed to be either physician assistants or nurses by both patients and other doctors and are often introduced by their first names in professional settings instead of by their professional title of “doctor.”
  • The gender pay gap for female physicians is significant and was detailed in an earlier article.
  • A recent study at Harvard found that gender bias affects referrals to female surgeons from other physicians.
What can be done to close the gender pay gap, increase respect, and decrease burnout for women in physics and medicine? Both June and Khullar suggest that having more women in leadership and mentorship roles could make a big difference. Khullar also notes that “disparities don’t close on their own. They close because we close them.” Let’s continue to put pressure on our institutions to be more equitable and inclusive. Do these disparities exist in your own profession? Please share with us what efforts your organization is making to close these gaps. Photo by Walt Stoneburner, CC BY 2.0.]]>

Invisible Women in Science: Overcoming the Challenges of Race and Gender

“I can’t believe I had to learn about these amazing and brilliant women from a movie! Why didn’t we learn about them in school?” lamented an African American friend and colleague. I felt the same way when I saw the movie Hidden Figures, a true story about the African American female mathematicians, scientists, and engineers who worked at NASA in the early days of the space program in the mid-twentieth century. They pushed against humiliations inside and outside their workplace, including racial segregation in their schools, dining rooms, bathrooms, and work spaces. They worked with lesser titles and large pay inequities to perform calculations of orbital trajectories and to solve engineering problems, making space travel possible. Janna Levin, who reviewed the book by Margot Lee Shetterly from which the movie was made, cites Shetterly as saying, “Women . . . had to wield their intellects like a scythe, hacking away against the stubborn underbrush of low expectations” based on gender and race. Their contributions were largely unacknowledged. Why are women’s contributions to science so invisible to most of us? Levin, who is a professor of physics and astronomy at Barnard College, also reviews Dava Sobel’s book about women astronomers at the Harvard College Observatory near the turn of the twentieth century. Another carefully researched true story, The Glass Universe tells the story of women astronomers hired and mentored by Edward Charles Pickering, director of the observatory from 1877 to 1919. Pickering is credited with hiring these women and mentoring the first female PhDs in astronomy at Harvard. Nonetheless, he refused to pay them the equivalent of their male counterparts. Star protégée Williamina Fleming, a single mother, complained to him about her salary—$1,500 per year in contrast to $2,500 per year paid to the men—and he told her “that I received an excellent salary as women’s salaries stand. . . . Does he ever think that I have a home to keep and a family to take care of as well as the men?” Her complaints were ignored. Levin notes that science profited from the women astronomers at the Harvard Observatory, but most of us have never heard their names—Henrietta Swan Leavitt, Williamina Fleming, Annie Jump Cannon, Cecelia Payne, and Antonia Maury are a few. Leavitt’s work, known as Leavitt’s Law, made Edwin Hubble’s development of his telescope possible. Hubble’s name is very familiar to me but not Leavitt’s. The recent death of Dr. Vera Rubin brings another unacknowledged female scientist to our attention. Lisa Randall explains that Vera Rubin made one of the most important advances in physics in the twentieth century when she presented convincing evidence of dark matter. Rubin’s discovery well deserved the Nobel Prize, but her revolutionary insight was never officially acknowledged with a Nobel. Randall, herself a professor of physics at Harvard, explains that “the elephant in the room is gender. Dr. Rubin was not alone in having been overlooked for the Nobel.” Randall goes on to note that “of the 204 Nobel laureates in physics, only two have been women.” Why don’t we learn about the accomplishments of women scientists? The history books don’t mention them, but we can make their names familiar to the people in our lives—our daughters and sons, our granddaughters and grandsons, our students. Let’s make a point of it!   Image courtesy of NASA/GSFC/Debbie Mccallum. CC by 2.0]]>