At the 2021 Society of Hospital Medicine (SHM) Annual Meeting, Marsha Burden, MD, division head of hospital medicine at the University of Colorado School of Medicine and leader of the 2020 SPEAK UP study, discussed her studies of gender equity among conference speakers through which she concluded that systematic processes created with the goal of improving gender disparity do indeed improve it.

At the 2015 SHM Annual Meeting, women comprised a mere 35% of all speakers and only 23% of plenary speakers. In subsequent years, the society put out open calls for speakers, thereby significantly raising the number of female speakers—47% of all speakers and 45% of plenary speakers. The increase in percentage of female speakers was directly related to how attendees rated the sessions, leading to improved ratings over the last 5 years.

Gender equity is an issue beginning with medical school, according to Dr. Burden. While 50% of medical school students are women, this percentage significantly wanes to 16% when examining faculty, full professors, and deans. A 2015 study of the top 50 US medical schools found that only 13% of clinical department leaders were women. Dr. Sara Spilseth, chief of staff at Regions Hospital in St. Paul, MN, labeled this loss of women in leadership roles as the “leaky pipe” and suggested that a “respect gap” is the problem. She referred to a study that found that women tend to use the formal title of “doctor” when introducing male colleagues, whereas men who introduce female colleagues only use this title a minority of the time.

The respect gap is largely evident in physician salaries as well. A study published in the Journal of Hospital Medicine found that women hospitalists earned $14,581 less than their male counterparts, and a paper in JAMA Internal Medicine indicated that female physicians averaged significantly lower salaries than male physicians. When considering faculty appointments at 24 US public medical schools, researchers found a significant gap in female versus male salaries. A 2020 Medscape Female Physician Compensation Report found that male primary care physicians (PCPs) earn around 25% more than female PCPs. The report also found a 33% pay gap between male and female specialists. Gender inequities were also shown to be present in incentive bonuses.

Dr. Spilseth’s hospital addresses issues of gender equity through groups like a Women in Medicine Cooperative, which gives female medical professionals the opportunity to talk about their common struggles and to network. She suggests that other career-boosting options for women include flexible work situations like working in transitional care units, being a physician advisor, or performing research.