A small beacon of hope for gender equality in Doctors pay in Australia? Not yet.
Dr John Bethell, Wavelength co-founder, discusses gender discrepancies in Doctors pay and looks at the possible reasons for why female Doctors are often paid less in Australia.
The recent furore over a medical practice in Victoria charging more to see a female doctor is alarming in its vociferousness and surprising in its public interest given the fact that it is highlighting a favourable pay rate in favour of female over male doctors.
Putting aside the legality or fairness of the pricing policy set by this practice, the apparent anger stirred by the news story is intriguing. Why should a 9% difference in cost in favour of female doctors spark such outrage in light of the overwhelming evidence that generally, their pay is routinely less than their male colleagues? A recent report in the Australian Doctor, by Dr Chris Harrison, highlighted the fact that female GPs earn “on average, $12.65 less per hour than males”. About 13% less, in point of fact.
Female doctors may choose to spend more time with patients, resulting in lower hourly Medicare payments.
Pay differences noted across all medical Specialties
This disparity is not limited to General Practice. Every speciality examined (with the notable exception of Paediatrics), showed the same pattern, and a male surgeon can earn a whopping 50% more than his female counterparts. Nor is it limited to Australia. Even the much-maligned Jeremy Hunt has called for a review to tackle the “unacceptable” 15% gender pay gap for doctors working for the NHS.
So what could explain this endemic discrepancy in a profession that, on the face of it, is so highly regulated regarding doctors pay? Salaries in the hospital system are subject to rigid payment awards, and Medicare payments are similarly gender neutral. Other forces are apparently at play. Dr Harrison's report references hourly rates so the gap cannot be explained away by more working hours being put in by male doctors.
Opinions from medical recruiters
As a medical recruitment company, we have unique access to doctors looking for work of all types, so to shed some light on this phenomenon I sought out a few opinions.
First, I approached the Wavelength recruiters, who interface daily with doctors and their potential employers, to find out if gender and pay ever come up as an issue during negotiations. Locum rates, in particular, can be fluid depending on demand and time frames involved. They are usually uncoupled to rigid awards and thus subject to market forces.
To my surprise, despite thousands of interactions annually, none of our recruiters reported any incidences of employers offering to pay more based on gender, nor did doctors complain that they felt they were subject to discrimination.
Opinions from some of our Doctors
Then I approached a range of doctors, both male and female, across several specialities for opinions. No single definitive theory emerged, but there were some suggestions:
- Pay increases with seniority and years of experience. Female doctors may be lagging in career progression vis a vis their male counterparts. This could possibly be due to career breaks to have children.
- Female Doctors may choose to work part-time hours more often than male Doctors. As mothers, female doctors are more likely to seek part-time work to accommodate childcare and school hours versus their male counterparts.
- Leadership opportunities pay more and they may not seek or be offered as many leadership opportunities as male Doctors.
- Female doctors may choose to spend more time with patients than their male counterparts, which affects income. For example, Medicare rebates will pay out about $150 for four, fifteen-minute consults but only $105 for one, sixty-minute consult.
This final point seems to have been the central argument used by the besieged practice in Victoria to justify its price differential between female and male doctors.
They appear to have backed down rapidly from their position and gone to ground under a barrage of social media-fuelled criticism from out-of-pocket patients, indignant male doctors and haughty legal experts alike.
Assuming that they were passing on those increased fees as income, perhaps they have missed an opportunity to present themselves as leading the way in championing fairer pay for female doctors – a small push back against an overwhelming tide of unequal pay. It’s a shame that the narrative has been so negative.
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