Why aren’t more women doctors in the top-paying specialties?


Less than one in five women physicians are practicing in the top five high-paying specialties. Women compose only 6% of orthopedic surgeons, 8% of interventional cardiologists, 10% of urologists, 17% of plastic surgeons, and 18% of otolaryngologists, according to the 2020 Association of American Medical Colleges Physician Specialty Data Report.

Plastic surgeons earn an average of $526,000 annually, which is the highest-paying specialty. Otolaryngologists earn an average of $417,000 annually, and urologists earn $427,000, according to the Medscape Physician Compensation Report 2021: The Recovery Begins.

Yet, far more women are practicing in specialties that pay less. Women are the majority in pediatrics (64%), ob.gyn. (59%), internal medicine (53%), and endocrinology (51%), the AAMC data show. The exception is dermatology, which pays well and in which 51% are women. The annual average pay is $394,000.

Why are so many women avoiding the top-paying specialties?

Several physician researchers and leaders in the top-paying specialties point to four main factors: Women are attracted to specialties that have more women in faculty and leadership positions, women prioritize work-life balance over pay, women residents may be deterred from the high-paying specialties because of gender discrimination and sexual harassment, and the longer training periods for surgical specialties may be a deterrent for women who want to have children.

Lack of women leaders

The specialties with the most women tend to have the highest proportion of women in leadership positions. For example, obstetrics and gynecology had the highest proportion of women department chairs (24.1%) and vice chairs (38.8). Pediatrics had the highest proportion of women division directors (31.5%) and residency program directors (64.6%), a study shows.

Surgical specialties, on the other hand, may have a harder time attracting female residents, possibly because of a lack of women in leadership positions. A recent study that examined gender differences in attitudes toward surgery training found that women would be more likely to go into surgery if there were more surgical faculty and residents of their same gender.

An analysis of orthopedic residency programs shows that more trainees were drawn to programs that had more female faculty members, including associate professors and women in leadership positions.

Terri Malcolm, MD, a board-certified ob/gyn and CEO/founder of Master Physician Leaders, Scottsdale, AZ

Dr. Terri Malcolm

Terri Malcolm, MD, a board-certified ob.gyn. and CEO/founder of Master Physician Leaders, said women need to consider whether they want to be a trailblazer in a specialty that has fewer women. “What support systems are in place to accommodate your goals, whether it’s career advancement, having a family, or mentorship? Where can you show up as your whole self and be supported in that?”

Being the only woman in a residency program can be a challenge, said Dr. Malcolm. If the residents and attendings are predominantly men, for example, they may not think about creating a call schedule that takes into account maternity leave or the fact that women tend to be caretakers for their children and parents.

The study of gender differences toward surgery training shows that 75% of women, in comparison with 46% of men, would be more willing to enter surgery if maternity leave and childcare were made available to female residents and attending physicians.


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