Why the pandemic may be hitting female radiologists harder, and how hospitals and practices can counter

The coronavirus pandemic has hit all aspects of the imaging profession hard, but it may be female members of the field who are taking the brunt of its impact.

Experts from the American Association of Women in Radiology recently highlighted this disparity during a discussion at the American College of Radiology’s online annual meeting this month. Panelists noted that female radiologists have been forced to take on extra work in recent months while attempting to balance caring for children and their elders with other duties, leading to plummeting productivity. A recent study in JACR also explored how video conferencing’s growing popularity in the profession may be having a negative impact on women, too. 

“Working moms have a lot of added stress,” Shadi Esfahani, MD, a resident physician in radiology at Massachusetts General Hospital, said last week, according to an ACR recap of the event.  “There’s also the impact on first-year residents and medical students to consider,” she added. “Their physical rotations have been canceled, so we’ll need more pipelines to encourage students and women to explore radiology.”

Esfahani and colleagues offered several examples of the challenges women face, which include trying to keep up with breastfeeding while worrying about social distancing and sanitation in lactation lounges. Anna Lee, MD, with Memorial Sloan Kettering, also noted that these struggles have spread to academia, with fewer females serving as first authors in published studies.

“Women’s productivity has gone down, in research especially,” she said.

An article published Monday in the Journal of the American College of Radiology pinpointed teleconferencing as another source of frustration for female physicians during the crisis.  Authors Sherry Wang, MD, and Marilyn Roubidoux, MD, offered several reasons for this gender gap, with men tending to speak for longer periods of time, interrupt more frequently, and use less of the nonverbal cues that women favor in communication.

“Since we all judge others’ communication style by our own norm, women can be perceived as less competent and less confident due to a different communication style than that of men in leadership. There are several communication differences between genders which can further exacerbate the gender gap with the use of videoconferencing,” wrote Wang and Roubidoux, with the departments of radiology at the universities of Utah and Michigan, respectively.

The two authors suggested using both the chat and emoji functions more frequently, and encouraging input from women who are less vocal in groups, to counter these issues. More simplistically, leaders should invite more women to join such meetings, support them, and ensure that their male colleagues do not interrupt.

“The more women present, the more likely their opinions will be given a voice,” the team wrote.

Of course, gender disparities in imaging and the rest of medicine are nothing new; COVID-19 is just shining a brighter light on this longstanding problem. A recent survey—completed before the pandemic hit the U.S.—found that male radiologists earn $438,000 on average, 14% more than the $386,000 tallied by female physicians. At the same time, female rads spent about two hours more per week with patients, on average, than their higher-earning male counterparts.

A second piece, published in JACR Monday, explored the pressing need to pursue “gender equity” in radiology, offering further tips from experts in the field. 

“Current female radiologists must support each other, master skills to manage up, and seek out leadership opportunities so as to become better and more visible role models,” wrote Priscilla Slanetz, MD, with Boston University Medical Center, and colleagues, who avoided any mentions of the pandemic in their analysis.Given the international success, it is only a matter of time that such concerted and visible efforts on the frontline will ultimately transform the landscape of our profession.”