Researchers who studied a group of motivated physician-academics have uncovered gender differences in the amount of time spent on parenting and household tasks, suggesting a reason for why female academic physicians overall do not have the same career success as their male counterparts.

The researchers, led by Dr. Reshma Jagsi of the University of Michigan Health System, have published their results in the journal Annals of Internal Medicine.

They surveyed over 1,000 motivated people with a medical degree who had received career development awards from the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The physicians were asked questions that determined how they divided their time and what their family responsibilities entailed.

Results show that, of physicians who were married, men were four times more likely to have a spouse who was either not employed or who only worked part-time.

Additionally, of physicians who were married with children, men worked 7 hours longer and spent 12 fewer hours on household tasks and parenting every week, compared with the women.

Commenting on the findings, Dr. Jagsi, who is also associate professor of radiation oncology at the university, says:

”One might expect that within a highly educated Generation X population there would be a relatively even distribution of domestic labor. But what we found was that there still seems to be a difference in the expectations at home for men and women, even for those with very busy jobs, even today.”

She adds that some of these differences could be explained by “the ability of male physicians to still support the traditional breadwinner model of a family.”

She cites their finding that most of the female participants were married to spouses who worked full-time, while most of the male participants had spouses who worked part-time or not at all.

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Female doctors spend 8.5 more hours each week on parenting and housework, compared with their male counterparts.

After the researchers accounted for spouse employment and other factors, they found that married women with children still spent 8.5 more hours on parenting and housework than the males did.

“This may also reflect the impact of some very subtle unconscious expectations we all have, and these have been resistant to change,” says Jagsi.

But in the medical field, if women are more likely to sacrifice their research time because it is the most flexible, this affects their academic success as a physician. The authors say it also impacts their eventual power to attain leadership roles in their field.

To combat this conflict between professional and domestic duties, the team says certain interventions could be put in place, for example: providing child care at conferences, allowing discretionary funding to support a nanny during conference travel, or making subsidies available for household tasks such as cleaning or cooking.

Such interventions, say the researchers, could allow time for both family and career.

“Medicine needs to be a profession in which both men and women can succeed and an environment in which women can be successful role models,” says Dr. Jagsi.

She told Medical News Today that she and her team have received an R01 grant from the NIH to look at causal factors for gender differences in physician-researchers’ careers. They plan to conduct a follow-up survey in the participants from their latest study.

Dr. Jagsi added:

Ultimately, our goal is to identify factors associated with career success for both men and women in these careers so that we can thoughtfully design interventions to help support future promising young physician-researchers in fighting disease and promoting health.”

“We are seeing a growing appreciation of the need to facilitate work-life balance for both men and women,” she says, “but it is important to recognize how this continues to challenge women more than men in our society.”