Women doctors are suffering bigger career setbacks from COVID-19, study suggests

Women physicians were more likely to cut their hours or work from home. Among couples where both parents are doctors, the gaps are wider.

Women physicians with children are experiencing more career challenges due to the COVID-19 pandemic, a recent study found.

The study was published by Jama Network Open earlier this month. Women doctors were more likely to assume child care responsibilities, work from home or reduce their hours, the study found.

Those gaps were significantly wider in couples where both parents were full-time doctors, the study found.

In the study analyzing responses of 276 doctors, women were more likely to have work conflicts and symptoms of depression and anxiety, according to the study.

“Findings from this national study suggest that gender disparities within medicine may have increased in association with pandemic work and home conditions, with disproportionate consequences for the mental health and careers of physician mothers,” the authors wrote.

“These findings underscore the importance of taking immediate action to ensure women have access to the resources and support necessary to navigate this unprecedented and uncertain time and the work-family challenges that may ensue moving forward.”

The study found about a quarter (24.6%) of women reported they were primarily responsible for providing child care or schooling during the pandemic, compared to 0.8% of men. Women were more likely to handle typical household tasks than men (31% to 7%).

In couples where both parents are working as full-time physicians, the differences were even larger.

The study found 44.9% of women physicians were taking up most of the day-to-day household tasks, compared to 4.8% of male doctors. In those physician couples, 28% of women doctors said they were handling the school and child care duties, while none of the men were taking the lead in those responsibilities, according to the study.

Women physicians were twice as likely to work from home (40.9% to 22%) and reduce their hours (19.4% to 9.4%) due to the pandemic.

Once again, the disparities were even larger in physician couples. Nearly two out of three women doctors (65%) worked from home, compared to about one in four men (24.6%, to be precise). The study found 25.7% of women doctors cut their hours, compared to 2.6% of men.

Female physicians also reported greater work-to-family conflicts and a loss of sleep.

Due to the pandemic, women physicians also indicated a higher risk for symptoms of depression compared to men, the study found. The authors note that there was no gender gap in depressive symptoms prior to the pandemic.

“As physician depression has been associated with increased risk for suicide, medical errors, and lower quality of patient care, this has important implications for the well-being of physician mothers as well as their patients,” the authors note.

With women doctors experiencing more conflict between work and family responsibilities, they could be paying the price professionally. Reducing hours or opting to do more work from home could impede their careers. The authors note even if the adjustments are temporary, women may be losing out on opportunities for promotions and higher earnings.

The healthcare industry should enable women who have to stop working to resume practicing when the pandemic eases.

“For those physician mothers forced out of the workforce, creating a viable path for re-entry into medicine after the pandemic will be critical,” the authors wrote.

Healthcare institutions must develop policies to enable women physicians to succeed.

“Given the current gender gaps in pay and promotion, institutions should actively work to recruit, retain, and advance women and be vigilant that cost-cutting measures and career advancement metrics do not disproportionately penalize them,” the authors wrote.

Women make up a little more than one-third of the physician workforce. On the upside, half of all medical school students are women, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges.

Michael Dill, director of workforce studies for the AAMC, said a key to addressing the shortage of doctors is providing more support for women. In a session at the AAMC’s conference earlier this month, Dill noted that 40% of women doctors choose to go part-time or leave medicine within six years of completing their residency.

“Gender equity and the physician workforce shortage are linked,” he said.

Overall, the study’s authors say the healthcare industry needs a greater awareness of the inequalities facing women physicians to improve the work climate. They said a stronger emphasis on work-life balance is critical.

The authors also suggest encouraging male doctors to take family leave and sick days, because it could help upend gender-related biases.

Elena Frank, a researcher at the University of Michigan’s Michigan Neuroscience Institute, was the lead author of the study, which involved several researchers.