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3 Challenges Female Physicians Face (How to Overcome Them)

Jackson Physician Search
May 11, 2022

Dr. S pulled her car into the garage at nearly 8 pm. Her husband had relieved the nanny hours ago and likely fed the kids dinner already, but there were still school folders to go through, homework to help with, tomorrow’s lunches to make, and of course, bedtime to contend with. She wasn’t complaining–she enjoyed these tasks of motherhood–but she was just tired.  And of course, there was still charting to do once the kids were in bed. She knew her work as an oncologist was important, as was her job as a mother, but there simply weren’t enough hours in the day to actually enjoy either one. 

Dr. J tried to mask her irritation with her colleagues during their weekly meeting. As an orthopedic surgeon, she was used to being outnumbered by the men in her field, but even after more than a decade of working alongside them, she still didn’t always feel comfortable. The resentment she felt toward her male peers contributed to her discomfort, of course. She repeatedly watched them get invited to speak at conferences and win awards and promotions for which she was just as worthy. She suspected they earned more than her too, but she had no proof. She knew it was best not to dwell on it–just focus on her patients and do her job.  

Dr. B stared blankly at her patient as she considered his comment: “I just think I’d like to hear a male doctor’s opinion, if you don’t mind.” Well, actually she did mind. In fact, she minded a little more each time she heard it–or some variation of the same comment. Hadn’t she gone to medical school just as long as her male peers? Hadn’t she studied just as hard? Worked as many hours in residency? But Dr. B didn’t say any of that. Instead, she left the room and moved onto her next patient. 

Dr. S, Dr. J, and Dr. B are not alone in the challenges they face as female physicians. But for now, they are resolved to keep doing the work despite the difficulties. However, an increasing number of their female peers are not. They are cutting their hours, leaving their jobs, or sometimes leaving the profession altogether. Employers should take steps to better support their female physicians, but female physicians must be proactive in seeking solutions if they hope to enjoy lasting, fulfilling medical careers.

Female Physicians Most Likely to Cut Hours or Leave

According to a recent article from Harvard Business Review, women make up one-third of the physician population, and they outnumber male students in medical school. While female representation is increasing in medicine, the authors suggest women physicians are cutting their hours and leaving the profession in concerning numbers. If the trend continues, the already dire physician shortage will get significantly worse.

So why are women leaving?  What specific challenges are making it so difficult for women to practice medicine? And how can female physicians overcome these challenges? 

The Ever-Elusive Work-Life Balance 

Work-life balance is increasingly important to both genders, and yet, it may be more out of reach for women than men. Physician-focused studies indicate the bulk of the non-professional work at home still falls to women. As a result, female physicians experience more work-family conflict than their male counterparts.

In a small study of how physician parents coped with work-family conflict during the pandemic, the researchers found women were significantly more likely to be responsible for childcare or schooling and household tasks. They were also more likely than men to work primarily from home during the pandemic or to reduce their work hours. Women also reported more depressive and anxiety symptoms.

Of course, the pandemic only magnified a pre-existing problem. Multiple pre-COVID studies point to the difference in time spent on household tasks reported by men and women. A 2019 study published in the National Academy of Medicine found fully employed female physicians spend 8.5 hours per week on childcare and other domestic activities, including caring for elderly parents. Female physicians whose spouses are also fully employed spend an additional 2 hours per day on domestic work. This is three times the amount of time reported by male physicians whose spouses also work. 

How to improve work-life balance?

With so much attention on the importance of work-life balance, many employers are willing to find ways to improve in this area for their physicians, however, they may not know what changes would be most helpful. Now is the time to ask for what you need. Whether it’s a four-day work week, job sharing, reduced call, more administrative support, or incorporating telehealth appointments, your employer is likely willing to try and accommodate you if it means you will stay. That said, if your employer is unable or unwilling to work with you, it may be time to look for a new physician job.  

Fewer Rewards for Female Physicians

A December 2021 study published in Health Affairs found a persistent 25% pay gap between male and female physicians resulted in a $2 million dollar difference in earnings over the course of a medical career. If this pay gap alone wasn’t discouraging, female physicians also feel less involved with decision-making than their male peers. Additionally, women receive fewer awards, are invited to speak less often, and hold fewer leadership roles. Studies suggest the COVID-19 pandemic worsened these disparities.

Women are underrepresented, underpaid, and often disrespected by patients and staff who still don’t think “physician” when they see a woman. According to an article for the AMA, 70% of women physicians reported some form of gender discrimination. Is it any wonder they are leaving their jobs at higher rates than their male colleagues? 

How to achieve equity?

As we indicated earlier, smart employers are more focused than ever on retaining the physicians they have, so now is the time to ask for what you deserve in terms of both compensation and opportunity. These conversations can be tough to navigate, so it’s important to also seek out a seasoned female physician mentor or professional coach for advice. She can also work with you to identify a path to achieving your goals–from speaking engagements to leadership positions to a seat on the board.

Practicing Medicine Takes a Greater Toll on Women

There’s no doubt, that practicing medicine today is not easy for anyone. However, studies indicate the job may take a greater toll on women. Women often spend more time with patients, more time charting, and may experience more empathy for patients than their male peers. While some studies suggest these qualities may result in better outcomes, they can also take a greater toll and lead to higher rates of burnout. 

The previously mentioned article for Harvard Business Review uses the results of a Press Ganey physician engagement study to further explore the experience of female physicians. Women gave lower ratings than men when asked about their staff support, time for patient care, involvement with decision-making, and job stress. Women also reported having more difficulty decompressing when not at work. All of these indicators explain why many female physicians would not choose the career again nor would they recommend it to a prospective medical school student.

How to reduce the pain of practicing medicine?

The solution here ties back to the former points. A flexible schedule and increased administrative support would give physicians more time to decompress and recover from the toll of treating patients. Likewise, a female physician mentor may be helpful in setting an example and advising on how to manage patients in a more sustainable way. 

All of these solutions rely on female physicians finding employers that recognize the unique challenges women face and being willing to make adjustments to overcome them. Female physicians should seek out employers that offer flexibility, transparent compensation models, administrative support, and ideally, have women in leadership positions. 

Women in medicine face multiple challenges, but employers should be more open than ever to making adjustments that will improve retention rates. So think through what you need, and ask for it! Of course, if your employer is unwilling or unable to adapt, it may be time to look for a new physician job. Contact a Jackson Physician Search Recruitment Consultant to discuss your physician job options or start a physician job search now. 

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