Women Docs: How Your Next Job Contract Can Reflect Your Real Goals

Batya Swift Yasgur, MA, LSW

December 01, 2022

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," Chester told Medscape.

"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, 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, 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 (eg, 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 Medscape 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 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 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 healthcare practice based in Austin, Texas, told Medscape 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 Hill.

Hill and 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 (MGMA).

Jon Appino, MBA, principal and founder of Contract Diagnostics, a Kansas City-based consulting company that specializes in physician employment contract reviews, told Medscape 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,'" Appino says. Proceed with confidence, knowing your worth and pursuing it.

Part-Time vs Full-Time

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 workweek, 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 — four 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 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, New York, told Medscape 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," Knoll says. "Since there are statutory laws that protect the employee's job, offering specific paid maternity leave is very unlikely."

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."

Hursh, author of The Final Hurdle: A Physician's Guide to Negotiating a Fair Employment Agreement, 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."

Do You Want Partnership?

Not all female physicians entering a private practice want to advance to becoming partners. Many who are balancing family and work commitments "would prefer to just go into the office, perform their clinical responsibilities, go home, and be done" without the extra headaches, tasks, and time involved with business leadership, says Appino.

Some private practices have different contracts for those on partnership vs nonpartnership tracks, so "you should ascertain this information and make sure it's not automatically assumed that you would like to be on a partnership track," says Appino.

On the other hand, you may want to become a partner. "I always suggest asking about the possibility of obtaining a leadership position in an organization or becoming an owner in a private practice," says Hursh. "You may be told, 'We've never had a woman in leadership before.' This might be innocent if you're the first woman hired, but it might be a red flag as to how women are regarded." Either way, it's important to have the information and know what your options are.

The Impact of Shift Schedule

Hursh advises drilling down into the specifics of the schedule if you're considering becoming a hospitalist. "Does a 'week-on/week-off' shift schedule assume you'll be taking your vacation time or completing your CME requirements during the week off? This is important for all physicians, but especially for women who might want to use their weeks off to attend to children and family."

Moreover, "there should be limits on shifts. You shouldn't have a full day shift followed by a night shift. And there should be a limit on the number of shifts you work without time off. Twelve would be a brutal schedule. Seven is a reasonable amount. Make sure this is in writing and that the contract protects you. Don't allow the employer to say, 'We expect you to do the work we assign' and leave it vague."

Often, hospitalists will receive an annual salary under the assumption that a certain minimum number of shifts will be completed, but there is no maximum. "It's important that the salary includes the minimum number of shifts, but that a compensation structure is created so that additional shifts receive additional compensation," Hursh said.

Removing the "Golden Handcuffs"

Hill observes that there are some "really terrible contracts out there, which physicians — especially women — often feel pressured into signing." They're told, "This is our standard contract. You won't find anything better." Or, "Don't worry about the small print and legalese." The physician "gets scared or is artificially reassured, signs an overwhelmingly unfair contract, and then feels stuck."

Being stuck in a bad contract "is debilitating and adds to burnout, feeling of depression, and the sense that there is no recourse and nowhere to go, especially if your family depends on you," Hill said.

"More women than men feel hamstrung or are resigned to being harassed — which is not uncommon in the medical setting, especially in surgical specialties — or just accept poor treatment," Hill added. Yes, you can "fight the system and go to HR, but fighting the system is very hard."

She urges women "not to feel stuck or imprisoned by the 'golden handcuffs' but to consult a good lawyer, even if you have to break the contract." Be aware of the reasons for your unhappiness and bring them to your lawyer — perhaps the system has engaged in fraud, perhaps there has been sexual or racial harassment, perhaps the organization hasn't followed its own compliance policies.

Chester consulted Hill before signing the contract for her current position. "I wanted someone who could give me personalized advice, not only generic advice, and who understood my needs as a woman."

Hill helped her to understand "what was and wasn't fair and reasonable, what changes I could request based on my goals and whether they were realistic, and how to pick my battles. For example, I tried to negotiate tail coverage up front in my previous job but was unsuccessful. The new employer paid tail for me, both from my previous employment and for my current employment."

Chester advises other female physicians "never to sign anything without having a lawyer review it, and to make sure that the lawyer is sensitive to their specific needs."

It can be hard to be a female physician. Having the right knowledge and ammunition and knowing how to negotiate well paves the way for success and thriving in an often male-dominated market.

Batya Swift Yasgur MA, LSW is a freelance writer with a counseling practice in Teaneck, New Jersey. She is a regular contributor to numerous medical publications, including Medscape and WebMD, and is the author of several consumer-oriented health books as well as Behind the Burqa: Our Lives in Afghanistan and How We Escaped to Freedom.

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