Biggest impact on female doctors during COVID-19

Study reveals stark gender divide in work-life conflict and career challenges.

The COVID-19 pandemic could harm the mental health and career prospects of female physicians, especially those with children and spouses of physicians, according to a new study.

The study, published in JAMA network open, examined 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 her colleagues found that about 1 in 4 women surveyed were primarily responsible for childcare or schooling, compared to less than 1% of men. Likewise, 31.4% of women said they were likely to perform the majority of daily household chores, compared to only 7.2% of men responsible for these tasks.

Gender disparities were even greater in households with 2 full-time physicians. In these households, 45% of women and 5% of men did most of the household chores, and 28.6% of women were responsible for schooling and childcare compared to 0% of men.

In addition, women were almost twice as likely as men to work from home (41% vs. 22%). Female doctors were also more likely to voluntarily reduce work hours (19.4% vs. 9.4%) since the start of the pandemic. Here too, the differences were even more marked between households with 2 doctors and children. Among this cohort, 65% of women and 34.6% of men worked from home, and 25.7% of women and 2.6% of men reduced their working hours.

In terms of mental health, the survey found that mothers scored significantly higher in surveys measuring symptoms of anxiety and depression. However, there was no significant difference in work / family conflict or depression 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, noted Frank et al. Investigators added that COVID-19 has exacerbated these trends, forcing 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 work consequences than men under working conditions from home and lower productivity,” wrote Frank et al. “Even short-term adjustments can have … long-term repercussions, as they can lead to lower incomes and negatively impact promotion opportunities, further exacerbating gender inequalities in pay and advancement. .

The authors added that mitigating these potential effects will require institutional and public policy solutions. Institutions should focus on recruiting, retaining and advancing women and ensuring that cost-cutting measures and career advancement measures do not disproportionately penalize them.

At the public policy level, Frank and his colleagues have called for more support for family care needs, such as childcare and paid family leave, as well as wellness programs tailored to physician mothers. A culture change around work-family balance issues is also needed, such as the normalization of the use of sick days and parental leave among male physicians in order to reduce gender biases in work and family expectations. .

An original version of this article appeared with our sister publication, Medical Economics®.


1. Frank E, Zhao Z, Fang Y et al. Experiences of work-family conflict and gender-specific mental health symptoms among physician parents during the COVID-19 pandemic. JAMA Netw Open. 2021; 4 (11): e2134315. Posted on November 1, 2021.

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