When Women Fail, They Pay a Much Bigger Price Than Men

Heather Sarsons

Via Harold Pollack, here’s a new study that will probably not surprise you—but should incense you. Heather Sarsons, a graduate student at Harvard, examined Medicare data to determine how doctors referred patients to specialists for surgery. In particular, did they treat male and female surgeons differently?

The answer is pretty simple: oh my, yes. Sarsons used matched panels of surgeons who were equally qualified and had similar records of surgical outcomes. But primary care doctors didn’t treat them the same. If a patient unexpectedly died after surgery, most doctors continued referring patients to male surgeons at about the same rate. But referrals to female surgeons plummeted:

In the case of male surgeons, an unexpected death is apparently treated as just something that happens sometimes. In the case of female surgeons, it’s taken as a sign of poor surgical skill. And it’s not just the surgeon herself who suffers. So do all her colleagues:

Again, referrals to male surgeons stay about the same. But if a female surgeon suffers an unexpected death, referrals to all female surgeons plummet. And just to make an obvious point clear, this has real-world implications for how much money they make:

What’s happening here is hardly uncommon. Minorities of all kinds are often treated as representatives of their entire group. If one fails, it reflects on all of them. But the same isn’t true of members of majority groups. There, a failure is usually taken as a chance occurrence. Not only doesn’t it reflect on their entire group, it often doesn’t even reflect on them personally.

If you’re white or male, you’d never see this. Even if you’re not, it might not be noticeable. If you experience a failure and subsequently get fewer referrals from a doctor, you might shrug and consider that a normal response, never knowing that your male colleagues aren’t treated the same way. Literally everyone might be totally unaware this is happening. It’s only when you dig deeply into the dusty, boring data that you discover this kind of rampant systemic privilege.