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Q & A with Peter Ubel

Fuqua professor Dr. Peter Ubel  found pay disparities between men and women in high-level research positions.
Fuqua professor Dr. Peter Ubel found pay disparities between men and women in high-level research positions.

Gender pay disparity has long been documented, but researchers recently investigated whether these disparities still extend into the highest levels of a particularly performance-driven field: research medicine. A survey of 800 doctors who had won prestigious grants early in their careers found that, even when controlling for specialization, work hours and other salary indicators, women received $12,000 less per year than men. Physician and behavioral scientist Dr. Peter Ubel, John O. Blackburn professor of marketing at the Fuqua School of Business, co-authored the study, published Wednesday in the Journal of the American Medical Association. He recently spoke with The Chronicle’s Julian Spector about why these pay differentials persist and what to do about them.

The Chronicle: Why did you focus on research doctors?

Peter Ubel: It’s a more homogenous group in general. What they are judged on is research quality, that’s how they move up the ladder. The majority of their salary is coming from research, not clinical. When you know how much research they’ve published, how many grants they’ve gotten, you have really good proxies for how productive they’ve been.

TC: And what did you ask them, 10 years after this award?

PU: We ask them all kinds of things about themselves, including salary, with the idea that if we ask them the right other questions, we’ll get an idea of why people are getting paid what they’re getting paid. What specialty are you? Specialty is huge predictor of how much money you make. Of course, it turns out that, on average, more men are in the more lucrative specialties than women. You’re already seeing gender assortment by specialty that correlates with income. You might say that’s a problem to begin with—if a field is associated with women you pay less for it, like teaching or nursing.

TC: Did that gender disparity persist within specialties?

PU: We’ve accounted for [specialty] in looking at what people are paid and we still found a gender gap. It’s smaller. We cut it about in half by accounting for specialty. This is really important because when you look at the topic of women making less money than men, there’s always the apples and oranges problem. ‘Men are doing different jobs.’ ‘But women’s jobs are underpaid.’ ‘But they’re choosing those jobs…’ We tried to get rid of that. But maybe men are working more hours or are more productive at work. So we measured how many hours a week they work, how many publications they have, external grants, have you been promoted. If all the gender differences went away, we would say men are paid more then women because they’re in higher paid specialties and getting more work done.

Then you can say, ‘Why do we live in a society where men are the ones working harder and getting into these higher paid jobs?’ Turns out there’s still a gap that we can’t explain by using these other factors that makes it more and more suspicious that there are men and women research physicians doing very similar work and getting paid differently.

TC: What causes this disparity?

PU: I think there are simply times when bosses offer women lower salaries, whether they’re not even aware that they’re giving women less, or they misperceive the person’s value or there is some kind of sex discrimination that goes on.

In addition this could come down to negotiating. We don’t have a formula that says, you write this many publications, you get this salary. You have to go to your boss and say, ‘Yeah, I think I should get the higher salary.’ Or you got an offer at another place and want to play them off each other to make your salary go up. Most importantly probably, a lot of them have changed jobs, but some of them haven’t changed jobs but have threatened. Is it that men are more able or willing to get counteroffers and use them for leverage? It’s a squeaky wheel issue. You put oil on the squeaky wheel. If you don’t ask for something it’s hard to get it. It’s something drawing your attention, saying you need to take care of me. It may be that men are more willing to squeak.

TC: Is it in the interest of a boss to ensure pay equity?

PU: If I’m the head of cardiology at Duke, I want all my employees to be happy, but ideally they’d all be happy with $80,000 a year. None of them are, they make many times more than that, but the lower the salary they demand the better for me and the cardiology division because it helps our bottom line.

So you begrudgingly give people raises, you do it to keep them from leaving or to recruit them here. What you don’t necessarily do is once you give person A a raise, you look across the entire division and say, you know if A deserves that much I should give it to B and C and D.

You want to keep people happy. So a smart boss looks at what the market is paying and tries to make people to feel like they’re being paid fairly.

TC: How would you advise a division head on salaries?

PU: A good leader should be obsessed with equity. Especially when you realize it reflects issues of broader societal import. I think you want to look at it and say that’s not the world I want to live in, so I’m going to try to be fair. You may have to say, I can’t give you that big of a raise because I’ll have to give these other people raises too.

When they value fairness they end up with happy employes. How do you know you’re being paid enough when you get beyond subsistence wages? You know you’re being paid too little when the person next to you is being paid too much. There’s not some objective measure of what you ought to be earning. A smart boss would aggressively address that.

TC: Do you have any negotiating advice for a young research doctor?

PU: Don’t be afraid to ask other people what they make. Not just money, but how much support do they get, travel budget, research budget. Talk to other people. It’s an awkward topic but people will often open up and be honest. Once you know what the market will bear, you know your worth a lot better and you’re in a better negotiating position.

Negotiating should not be a zero sum game where anything I get from you you’ve lost. The more you can find win-wins with the person you’re negotiating with, the better. You could tell someone, if you help me get $50,000 more for my research funds, I’m going to be able to turn that into a big grant and I’ll bring more money into your division. Frame it that way and it’s less like you’re worried about money than how to be a great employee.

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