Using data from the Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia (HILDA) survey, the economists found that in 2010, single men’s wealth was on average 23% higher than single women’s wealth holdings — a doubling of the gender wealth gap since 2002, when it was 10%.
The numbers are no different in medicine. A 2010 Australian study found female GPs earned, on average, 25% less than male GPs, and female specialists earned 16.6% less than their male colleagues.
In the US, female doctors earn just 71% as much as male doctors.
Workforce participation is one reason for the wealth gap, with women more likely to work fewer hours compared with males. Other factors that contribute include women working in positions that attract lower pay; a lack of women in senior positions; a lack of part-time or flexible senior roles; and discrimination, both indirect and direct.
Only 34% of specialists in Australia are women. While this is frequently attributed to lifestyle choices, there is evidence from the US that gender discrimination and sexual harassment during medical school has some impact on specialty choice.
The US study showed that women pursuing a career in general surgery were most likely to experience discrimination and harassment. In Australia surgeons are the highest earners in the medical profession, and it is a specialty dominated by males.
Discrimination against women in the Australian workforce appears to start early. After university graduation, women will have a starting salary 4.4% lower than men, even after taking into account the field of education, personal and occupational characteristics. The discrimination continues into the upper echelons of business, with only one in five board members of Australia’s top 200 companies being women.
There are opportunities in medicine to reduce the male–female divide. Greater availability of part-time training in clinical and non-clinical work is one important step in promoting greater gender uniformity across medical specialties. However, this requires effort and ongoing reform on behalf of medical colleges, as well as health and hospital systems.
There are positive steps being taken with part-time training already established by a number of colleges and others offering in-principle support for implementing part-time training models. Further empirical work is required to understand the optimal curricula and processes needed to implement and encourage part-time training.
We should be striving for greater equality in Australia — on pay, on leadership and in workforce participation.
Such equality may be accomplished through increased transparency on pay and conditions in individual contracts; deep reflection on our own gender biases and advocacy to change; greater employer flexibility for female doctors who decide to have children; destigmatisation of paternity leave in medicine; and greater representation of women in medical leadership positions.
These goals are achievable and should be made a priority by the medical profession in 2015.
Dr Malcolm Forbes is a medical registrar, NHMRC postgraduate scholar, and adjunct lecturer in the College of Medicine and Dentistry, James Cook University.
Dr Harris Eyre is studying as a Fulbright Scholar at the University of California, Los Angles. He is a psychiatry registrar and undertaking a PhD through the University of Adelaide.