What’s the Salary? The Envelope, Please

Aug 1, 2018

The history and mystery of physician pay

Carola Eisenberg, M.D., took a job as dean of students at MIT in 1972.

She expected she would enjoy her work. But she was not entirely certain how much money she would be paid.

“The chancellor would come once a year with an envelope and would say, ‘This is a new salary for next year,’" she recalls.

The dean would then proceed with his evaluation, praising her work. Dr. Eisenberg was unsure what she should do next.

“I didn't know whether to open it up with him there or not to open it up,” she says.

At the dean’s urging, she opened the envelope. She was pleased with the number she saw.

“I said, ‘I don't know how much to thank you, because I don't know what I was making this year,’" says Dr. Eisenberg, an Argentina-born psychiatrist. “Because to me, it seems incredible that they are paying me for something that I love doing.”

The History of Physician Pay

Nearly half a century ago, many women in medicine felt fortunate simply to be pursuing their professional passion. Dr. Eisenberg didn’t negotiate her compensation, despite her advocacy for equality for women. She trusted her employer to treat her fairly.

Today, women have made tremendous strides in advancing careers in medicine. In 2017, more women than men were enrolled in U.S. medical schools for the first time.

But what women earn after they begin practicing isn’t equal to the paychecks of their male counterparts.

Various studies have revealed disparities in wages across the board.

In a study published in JAMA Internal Medicine in 2016, researchers analyzed the pay of academic physicians at 24 medical schools nationwide. Adjusting for such factors as age, experience and faculty rank, the study found that women earn an average of $19,878 less. Only two universities paid men and women equally.

A 2015 study published in the Journal of Hospital Medicine found women hospitalists made $14,581 less than male colleagues, after adjusting for age, leadership positions, and full-time equivalency.

The 2018 Physician Compensation Report by Doximity, a social networking platform for health care professionals, was even more alarming. Women physicians earned an average of 27.7 percent less than their male counterparts. That’s an average of $105,000 a year.

Taking Steps Forward

Dr. Eisenberg’s work included creating support for women in academia and increasing women’s involvement in the sciences. She also supported a program that provided money for women who had babies but wanted to continue their medical education. After she was invited to El Salvador to investigate human rights violations, she helped to found Physicians for Human Rights.

“I do think that obviously women deserved equal pay.”


This story is taken from the oral history of Dr. Carola Eisenberg. The full oral history is available here as part of the Foundation’s exhibit at the The Countway Library of Medicine, through our partnership with the The Archives for Women in Medicine.