Study finds a clear gender divide in work-life conflicts and career challenges.
According to a new study, the COVID-19 pandemic may be harming the mental health and career prospects of female physicians, especially those with children and physician spouses.
The study, published in JAMA Network Open, looked at gender differences in work-family responsibilities and emotional well-being among early-career physicians (N=215) since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.1 Elena Frank, PhD, and colleagues found that about 1 in 4 of the women surveyed were primarily responsible for providing childcare or schooling compared with less than 1% of the men. Similarly, 31.4% of women said they were likely to perform the majority of day-to-day household tasks, compared with only 7.2% of men responsible for those tasks.
The gender disparities were even greater in households with 2 full-time physicians. In those homes, 45% of women and 5% of men performed most of the household chores, and 28.6% of women were responsible for schooling and childcare versus 0% of men.
In addition, women were nearly twice as likely as men to work from home (41% versus 22%). Female physicians also were more apt to voluntarily reduce work hours (19.4% versus 9.4%.) since the start of the pandemic. Here, too, the differences were even more stark among 2-physician households with children. Among that cohort, 65% of women and 34.6% of men worked from home, and 25.7% of women and 2.6% of men reduced their work hours.
In terms of mental health, the survey showed mothers scored substantially higher on surveys measuring symptoms of anxiety and depression. However, there was no significant difference in work/family conflicts or depressive or anxiety scores among survey participants who were not parents.
Even before the pandemic, parenthood often meant reduced work hours and income for female doctors, as well as greater challenges in balancing work and family demands, Frank et al noted. The investigators added that COVID-19 exacerbated these trends, causing more female doctors to reduce their hours and/or work from home, potentially impacting their careers.
“Early evidence from the pandemic suggests that women experience more negative professional consequences than men under work-from-home conditions and lower productivity,” Frank et al wrote. “Even short-term adjustments can have…. long-term repercussions as they may lead to lower earnings and negatively impact opportunities for promotion, further exacerbating gender inequalities in compensation and advancement.”
The authors added that mitigating these potential effects will require institutional and public policy solutions. Institutions need to focus on recruiting, retaining and advancing women and ensuring that cost-cutting measures and career advancement metrics do not disproportionately penalize them.
At the public policy level, Frank and colleagues called for greater support for family care needs, such as childcare and paid family leave, along with wellness programs tailored for physician mothers. A shift in the culture around work-family balance issues is also needed, such as normalizing the use of sick days and parental leave among male physicians in order to weaken gender biases in work and family expectations.
A version of this article original appeared with our sister publication, Medical Economics®.
1. Frank E, Zhao Z, Fang Y, et al. Experiences of work-family conflict and mental health symptoms by gender among physician parents during the COVID-19 pandemic. JAMA Netw Open. 2021;4(11):e2134315. Published 2021 Nov 1.