For physician mothers, career satisfaction is dependent on domestic workload

By Yasmine S. Ali, MD, MSCI, FACC, FACP | Fact-checked by Barbara Bekiesz
Published August 10, 2023

Key Takeaways

  • Female physicians who are mothers are often tasked with the sole responsibility of household tasks, even when they work long hours, according to research.

  • Taking on five or more domestic tasks increases the desire for a career change.

  • Employers can attract more physicians by offering childcare benefits.

Women in medicine are not immune to household labor's uneven (and usually unfavorable) distribution based on our society’s structure. Studies have shown that domestic task load can significantly impact professional career satisfaction for mothers who are physicians.

Increased domestic workload and career dissatisfaction

In a study published in JAMA Surgery, researchers investigated whether increased domestic workload, particularly for proceduralists, was associated with career dissatisfaction among physicians who are also mothers.[] Of the more than 1,700 survey respondents, 99.2% were married or had partners, and 27% were in procedural specialties like surgery and gastroenterology.

Overall, the respondents, all mothers, reported having sole responsibility for most domestic tasks, such as routine child care plans, emergency child care plans, grocery shopping, cooking, vacation planning, helping with homework, doing laundry, and shopping for children’s clothing. These physician mothers reported that their spouses or partners were more likely to have sole responsibility for household finances, home repairs, and automobile maintenance.

Of the respondents, 48% said they bore primary responsibility for five or more domestic tasks. Physicians in procedural specialties responsible for five or more domestic chores were significantly more likely to be married or partnered with a physician or surgeon and have more than one child. They were also more likely to contribute more than half of total household income and to have been in active practice for at least seven years.

Interestingly, the study authors found no association between increased domestic responsibilities and career dissatisfaction among physician mothers who are not in procedural specialties. However, proceduralists with primary responsibility for five or more domestic tasks were significantly more likely to report a desire to change careers—to a less demanding specialty or career—than proceduralists responsible for fewer than five domestic tasks.

Supporting physicians and mothers

These findings shed light on an issue that needs to be addressed, given the significant impact that domestic-task burden has on women physicians’ career dissatisfaction—to the point of causing 55% to express a desire to change careers or specialties.

Solutions include a more equitable division of household chores between spouses or partners (and empowering women in general, not just in medicine, to expect that) and outsourcing specific tasks like house cleaning, vacation planning, and even meal planning.

Overcoming a false dichotomy

As these results illustrate, and as we saw during the COVID-19 pandemic, the separation between work and home life may be a false dichotomy, especially for women. One impacts the other, and vice versa, and women continue to bear the brunt of childcare responsibilities, regardless of profession.

Women of color report greater challenges with shouldering caregiving responsibilities at home and maintaining the ability to remain fully productive at work.

According to the Harvard Business Review, research has shown that the pandemic set women in the workforce back by five years.[] This has magnified calls for US companies to implement better childcare policies, which should also apply to the female physician workforce.

Women in medicine can advocate for and should ask about childcare when considering job offers. “Do you offer childcare support?” The reaction or response will be quite telling and can become an important factor when deciding where to build a medical career and with which colleagues. No less than the future of your career may depend on it.

What this means for you 

Research indicates that female doctors who are also mothers frequently find themselves exclusively responsible for household duties, even when their work hours are extensive. The inclination to consider a career change grows when managing five or more household responsibilities. To draw in additional physicians, employers can entice them by providing childcare benefits.  

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