Poor work-life balance for women in some medical specialities


By Michael Woodhead and Julie Lambert

4 Aug 2021

Female specialists have a poor work-life balance and only a minority have family-friendly working hours, an Australian study has found.

Survey findings from 452 women from a range of medical specialities showed that 75% reported the demands of work interfering with their home and family life, and less than half believed they had a balanced life.

The findings included responses from 117 female internal medicine physicians as well as women working in paediatrics (36), O&G (15), cardiology (57) and general practice (80).

Most reported a lack of flexibility in their working hours, with only 28% saying that they were able to choose their working hours and 25% feeling they had enough time to do the lifestyle things they wanted to do.

Overall, respondents to the survey reported working an average of 42 hours per week, with 39 of those at workplace.  About half said they had no on call commitments, while 36% said they were on call once per week and 15% more than once a week.

Almost women surveyed (97%) said they found their careers stimulating and intellectually professionally challenging, but only 57% said they believed their speciality was family friendly or conducive to having children.

Almost 40% of women said they chose their medical speciality based on family friendly. Among those surveyed, 71% had children, with most taking time off between gaining a medical degree and prior to completing specialist training to have children. Career choice led to 37% of women delaying parenting, while 25% said they delayed training for reasons related to having children.

Just over half said (54%) they returned to work part time after having children while a third (34%) returned to work full time. For women with children, 53% reported using day care and 23% used a nanny for child care.

Cardiology was the least family friendly of the specialities, with women reporting working more hours per week compared with non-cardiology specialties and more likely to be on call more than once per week. Only 19% of women in cardiology believed their specialty was “female-friendly”, and 33% believed they led a balanced life.

However, women in cardiology were more likely to earn an annual income over $300,000 (35% vs 10%).

Report co-author Associate Professor Sarah Zaman, whose subspeciality of interventional cardiology has a female participation rate of just 4.8%, said the research presented the first hard evidence as to why women do not pursue careers in specialities that are not family friendly.

“This survey objectively shows that there is very poor work-life balance, there’s lots of on-call, lots of hours worked. And it shows that people within the specialty, women particularly, see it as not being female-friendly or family friendly,” she told the limbic.

“So, of course, you are going to deter a large cohort of people from entering the specialty, and not just women.”

“I think nowadays it is well recognised that better doctors are made by having better work-life balance. When you go to the other extreme – lots of on-call and poor work-life balance – you have higher levels of burn-out and disillusionment, and it’s going to make poorer quality doctors.”

Dr Zaman, an academic interventional cardiologist at Sydney University and Westmead Hospital, said more flexibility for trainees during their three- to five-year regimen could be the key to addressing the gender imbalance.

“The training involves long hours, lots of on-call, lots of weekends.  It’s a highly competitive specialty and if you want to get ahead in your career, there’s also research, PhDs, conferences,” she said.

“You are basically sacrificing a lot in order in that time of your life to pursue the specialty.”

“By the time you are doing cardiology training, you are in your early 30s for instance.  If you are a man and you have the support of a partner who looks after your kids, it’s much easier.  If you are a woman, unfortunately it coincides with the time you want to have children.”

“Of course that’s going to deter highly qualified people. They aren’t going to pursue it if they can’t see they can have some sort of a life.”

The findings are published in Open Heart journal.

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