Updated: Apr 26, 2019
Let's talk about wellness in female physicians. We are going to bring you some DATA on why women in medicine have HIGHER rates of burnout than their male colleagues. I'll give you a hint - it has to do with gender bias! This series is going to run for the next few days, so don't miss any part of this awesome series on Women & Wellness in medicine brought to you by Abigail Schirmer, MS-1 and our founder Melissa Parsons, MD.
There are many stress-inducing issues for a physician today: charting in an electronic health record, handling mistreatment, managing performance metrics, all while penultimately being responsible for patient lives. Given the high burnout rates among physicians, it is apparent that these stressors have taken a toll on physicians across the United States. Female physicians, however, have higher burnout rates than their male colleagues (50% of females vs 39% of males) (1) due to several confounding factors: gender bias, the gender pay gap, the leadership gap, sexual harassment, and the challenges of work-life integration, including maternal discrimination. (2) Despite the fact that women have been entering medical school at a rate approximately equal to males for the last two decades, gender inequalities still exist. Women experience gender bias from colleagues and patients, and the pay gap and leadership gap continue. (3) Dealing with these biases while caring for patients, a family at home, and achieving work-life balance, leads to reduced career satisfaction and burnout.
While many of these issues are not exclusive to women, such as growing a family or work-life balance, recent data and statistics suggest that women are more significantly impacted by these additional responsibilities. Several studies have identified factors which contribute to perceived burnout (Figure 1) individually through comparison of female physician to male physician responses. Factors which have been identified to contribute to burnout include the gender pay gap which can contribute to imposter syndrome and reduced career satisfaction; increased societal expectations and corresponding reduction in work-life balance; instance of stereotyping and sexual harassment; and the leadership gap which leads to lack of mentors, decreased administrative roles (Figure 1). These factors, and their precursors, contribute to the subsequent decline in mental health and wellness as well as increased stressors which add to the evolution of burnout. In this paper, we identify and evaluate the specific components contributing to female physician burnout and discuss what interventions and steps can be taken to reduce biases, gaps, and scenarios that actively contribute to burnout.
Female physicians encounter gender bias through the eyes of society, colleagues, and patients alike. Gender bias creates a foundation for several other concerns such as the pay gap, leadership gap, and sexual harassment. According to a recent 2017 study, 66.3% of 4507 respondents reported experiencing gender discrimination. (4) This bias has been evidenced to begin in medical school, (5) wherein over 50% of applicants and matriculants are women, (3) and to continue throughout a physician's career. (2) Discrimination due to physical appearance, (6) gender stereotyping, (7) and exclusion from administrative decision-making (4) have impacted female physicians who also reported decreased career satisfaction.
In matters of appearance, female physicians who appear more feminine or attractive have been discriminated against by colleagues and/or patients. (6) Behavior which contradicts gender stereotypes of women, including loud verbal communication and voice modulation, have led patients to view female physicians as more dominant (in a negative way) suggesting that patient’s see verbal and non-verbal cues differently among female and male physicians. (8) Countering gender norms within the healthcare setting was found to potentially harm the patient-physician relationship and the care that a patient may receive. (8)
These gender biases may stem from patients, physician colleagues or ancillary staff, with the repercussions of these biases being noticed by female physicians. Studies have shown that female physicians have significantly more concerns about gender judgement than men. (9) These increased concerns of gender judgment found in female surgical residents were also found to have significant association with negative well being, increased emotional exhaustion, and depersonalization, (9) which are all components of burnout. (2,9) However, regression analysis of this data displays that the reverse of stereotypical roles, such as men serving in traditionally female roles or stereotype that they must outperform women in surgery, may result in concerns of gender judgement from male physicians as well. (9) This presence of gender bias has been correlated to burnout, making gender equity a prime target for improvement of burnout among female physicians. (9)
We've talked a little bit about the gender bias that women in medicine experience and how that affects wellness in this first part; part 2 and part 3 will look at other factors that affect wellness for women in medicine, including the pay gap, the leadership gap and work-life integration. Don't miss the entire series!
Medscape National Physician Burnout, Depression & Suicide Report 2019. https://www.medscape.com/slideshow/2019-lifestyle-burnout-depression-6011056#4. Accessed April 3, 2019.
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