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Women docs: How your next job contract can reflect your real goals


 

Rebecca Chester, MD, an Arizona-based interventional cardiologist, recently left her position in a private practice and started employment at a hospital system.

“When I was negotiating my previous contract with the private practice, I found that navigating contracts from the standpoint of a woman still in childbearing years was a little disappointing and challenging,” Dr. Chester told this news organization.

“I wanted to have more children and hired a lawyer recommended by a male colleague to help me not only understand the contract but also negotiate time off and maternity leave, but the lawyer discouraged me from advocating for maternity leave, feeling that it might stigmatize me and prevent me from getting a job,” she says.

He also didn’t explain very much. “He just said it falls under ‘disability leave’ and left it at that.”

Fortunately, Dr. Chester had a good experience with the group. “As things turned out, I did have a child later that year, and they treated me well – I actually got time off – and they didn’t make me take extra call. But it might have turned out very differently because I didn’t know what I was getting into. If I hadn’t worked for such a conscientious group, I might have been in a much tougher situation.”

Since then, Dr. Chester has spoken to female colleagues who received “more support from their legal advisors regarding maternity leave.” She suggests turning to female physicians for recommendations to a lawyer.

Although the central components of a contract (for example, noncompete covenants, malpractice “tail” coverage, bonus structure, vacation time, disability, and call) are relevant to physicians of all genders, the needs of women and men are often different.

Dennis Hursh, managing partner of Physician Agreements Health Law, a Pennsylvania-based law firm that represents physicians, told this news organization that women physicians have “several issues that need special attention when negotiating their physician employment agreements.”

It starts with the interview

“Women have to be sensitive to the interviewer’s casual ‘let’s-get-to-know-each-other’ types of questions that may seem natural but really are unlawful to bring into an employment interview,” said Mr. Hursh.

He warned women to beware of questions such as “Are you married? Do you have kids? Are you planning to start a family?” These may be friendly chit-chat for male interviewees but there may be other agendas when asked to a prospective female employee.

Many of Mr. Hursh’s female clients have been asked this type of question, which “should be regarded as a ‘red flag.’ Yes, it may be an innocent, well-intentioned ice-breaker, but it’s actually unlawful to bring that up in an employment setting and, according to the Equal Opportunity Commission, can be seen as a form of discrimination.” He advises female physicians not to engage with the question and simply to refocus the discussion.

Know your worth and go for it

Medscape’s Physician Compensation surveys have consistently found discrepancies in earnings between male and female physicians, both in primary care and in specialties. In 2022, male primary care physicians earned 23% more than their female counterparts, whereas male specialists earned 31% more.

One reason may be that women tend to be more timid about negotiating for better compensation packages. Amanda Hill of Hill Health Law, a health care practice based in Austin, Tex., told this news organization that in her experience one of the most “overarching” features of female physicians is “that they either don’t know what they’re worth or they undersell themselves.”

In contrast to men, “many women are afraid of coming across as greedy or crass, or even demanding or bossy. But it’s a misperception that if you ask for more money, your future employer will hate you or won’t hire you,” said Ms. Hill.

Ms. Hill and Mr. Hursh encourage physicians to find out what they’re worth, which varies by region and specialty, by consulting benchmarks provided by companies such as Medical Group Management Association.

Jon Appino, MBA, principal and founder of Contract Diagnostics, a Kansas City–based consulting company that specializes in physician employment contract reviews, told this news organization that it’s important to look beyond the salary at other aspects of the position. For example, some figures “don’t take into account how much call a physician is taking. You may know what the average ob.gyn. is making, but an ob.gyn. may be working 3 days a week, while another one is working 6 days a week, one may be on call 15 times per month and another may be on call 15 times a quarter.” Other components of compensation include relative value unit (RVU) thresholds and bonuses.

Once you have that information, “don’t be intimidated, even if you’re sitting in front of several executives who are savvy about negotiations, and don’t worry about coming across as ‘high-maintenance’ or ‘all about money,’ ” Mr. Appino says. Proceed with confidence, knowing your worth and pursuing it.

Part-time vs. full-time

Mr. Appino has seen “more female than male physicians who want to work less than full-time. So it’s important to clarify whether that’s a possibility now or in the future and to understand the implications of working part-time.”

He explained that a full-time employee typically puts in a 40-hour work week, which translates into 1.0 Full-Time Equivalent (FTE), or one unit of work. “For example, if a person wants to work 0.8 FTEs – 4 days a week – is vacation time pro-rated? At what point is there a medical insurance fall-off or a higher monthly premium?”

In medical settings, FTEs may be tied to different metrics rather than the number of weekly hours – for example, for a hospitalist, it might be a certain number of shifts and might also vary by specialty. And it affects the call schedule too. “Call is hard to pro-rate. Many hospital bylaws mandate that call be divided equally, but if one surgeon is working 1.0 FTEs and another is working 0.8 FTEs, how does that call schedule get divided?”

Maternity leave: A tricky question

Many attorneys counsel against raising the question out of fear of scaring away potential employers.

“On the one hand, it is and should be absolutely reasonable to ask about the maternity leave policy or even negotiate for paid leave or additional leave, but it also highlights that you’re planning to have a baby and be out for months,” said Ms. Hill.

“And as much as we want people to be fair and reasonable, on the side of the employer, bias still very much exists, especially in a situation where revenue is based on group numbers. So suddenly, the employer thinks up some ‘nondiscriminatory’ reason why that person isn’t a great fit for the organization.”

Andrew Knoll, MD, JD, a former hospitalist who is now a partner with Cohen Compagni Beckman Appler & Knoll PLLC in Syracuse, N.Y., said that maternity leave is “rare” in an employment agreement, except sometimes in small private practice groups, because it often falls under the purview of “disability leave,” and “from a legal perspective, it’s no different than any other type of disability leave.”

The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which applies if a group is large enough, allows employees 12 weeks of unpaid leave, during which time their job is protected and their benefits maintained. And some states require employers to offer paid family leave.

“During this time, the woman can take time off – albeit without pay sometimes – to bond with the baby,” Dr. Knoll says. “Since there are statutory laws that protect the employee’s job, offering specific paid maternity leave is very unlikely.”

Ms. Hill advises carefully examining the employer’s comprehensive benefits plan to ascertain if paid maternity leave is included in the benefits. “But unless you’re currently pregnant and want to start off the relationship with true transparency – ‘I’m due in April and curious how we can handle that if you hire me now’ – I would keep the family planning questions to yourself before you get the job.”

Mr. Hursh, author of “The Final Hurdle: A Physician’s Guide to Negotiating a Fair Employment Agreement” (Charleston, S.C.: Advantage, 2012), has a different perspective. “I think all women, no matter how old they are, should ask about maternity leave, whether or not they’re planning a family,” he said.

“The employer may say, ‘We treat maternity leave like any other disability; our policy is such-and-such.’ If they cite an unacceptable policy, it’s a red flag about how they treat women, and should give a woman pause before accepting a position at that organization. Even if your rights are protected under the law and the organization’s policy is violating the law, no one wants to go to battle with HR or to have to go to court.”

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