A man and his son were in a car accident. Both were taken to the hospital with critical injuries, and the boy was quickly rushed into surgery. The surgeon said, “I can’t operate on this boy; he’s my son.” How is this possible?
(Spoiler alert: The surgeon is the boy’s mother.)
Many of us have heard this riddle used to demonstrate continued sexism in this country (some of us have even fallen for it). Why does it work? Because women in the United States are still battling bias and inequality, particularly in the workplace. A new study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association this week takes a closer look at the medical profession and provides evidence of the impact gender inequality is having on some of the country’s most elite female doctors.
The study was conducted by researchers at the University of Michigan Health System and Duke University. They surveyed 800 mid-career physicians who had received highly competitive research grants from the National Institutes of Health early in their careers. Despite the highly select and talented pool, when the researchers controlled for factors like specialty, productivity, work hours, leadership roles and other degrees, they found that female physicians are paid an average of $12,000 less per year than male doctors.
This means that in the course of 30 years, some of our most elite female physicians are losing more than $350,000 due to their gender. That’s enough to pay for college tuition for a few kids, a house in many cities, retirement and much more. The study is a striking reminder that wage discrimination and gender inequality are still a very real factor in the lives of America’s women and families — even women who are well-educated professionals.
The fact that women can’t get a fair shake in the workplace, even as what the researchers dubbed “cream-of-the-crop” physicians, is deeply disturbing. What’s even more troubling is that this study reminds us of this unacceptable reality just a week after Congress refused to advance a bill that would help curb wage discrimination against women in this country.
Opponents of the Paycheck Fairness Act questioned whether the wage gap exists and attempted to explain it away by arguing it’s just a matter of personal and career choices. This study, which accounts for those factors, and other studies like it should be a wake-up call. The wage gap cannot be explained away. It spans industries and educational levels, and it costs women and their families months’ or years’ worth of basic necessities each year.
The wage gap and wage discrimination are real, and it’s time for lawmakers and employers to make addressing them a priority. Closing the gap may not be the prescription for completely curing the country of gender inequality, and it may not prevent people from getting stumped on a riddle about sexism, but it will move us forward in a badly needed way. And, most importantly, it will make a real difference for the economic security and well-being of women and their families.