At a certain point in her career, Linda Brodsky says, she was convinced she had it all. The story of how she found out she didn’t is a cautionary tale for women who simply assume they’re being paid fairly for their work.
Brodsky worked hard through medical school in the 1970s, getting help from a friend’s father who cosigned a loan when her father was bankrupt, and working full-time while attending class. She loved surgery, and decided to specialize in otolaryngology. When she was a resident, she married and had her first of three children. She took five weeks off after her first child’s birth, 10 days after the second, and three weeks after the third.
By that time she had moved to Buffalo, New York, where she became a pediatric otolaryngologist at the Children’s Hospital of Buffalo, taught at the University of Buffalo, and maintained her own practice. She was busy, but she loved her work. When the hospital where she had done her residency called her up and offered her a plum job, she turned them down, thinking another opportunity would come along.
But in the late 1990s, Brodsky began to be aware that she was being paid significantly less than men working for the same institutions in Buffalo. “I was furious,” she told me. “I was really hurt and embarrassed. How could I let this happen to me?” Eventually she launched a legal battle that took 10 years to resolve, and left her exhausted. She says her employers created a hostile work environment in retaliation, and since she couldn’t get a financial remedy until she proved damages, it was an especially protracted battle.
Brodsky settled her lawsuit against the university, and reached an agreement with the hospital. Since then, she has continued in private practice, and become an activist for fair treatment of women in medicine. This year she launched Women MD Resources, an organization dedicated to “helping women physicians get the jobs they want, the pay they deserve, and not become prisoners of their careers.” She spoke with me on Monday about how she felt after receiving that big check, how to protect yourself from getting taken advantage of at work, and why women in medical school shouldn’t let themselves get pressured into pediatrics.
How did you feel after all the lawsuits were over, after such a protracted fight?
I had this huge check in my hand the day after Christmas in 2007, and I burst into tears. Not because I had money but because I didn’t feel like I’d accomplished anything. I lost my career, and gender bias was still a huge problem.
Looking back, is there anything you think you could have done differently that might serve as advice for young women?
Women have to get really clear. They have to define their “all,” what it is they want from their careers. To do that, they have to know who they want to work with, what they want to do, the subject matter, all that. They have to not let people tell them, “Well, if you really want to have a good life, don’t be a surgeon.” I see a lot of unhappy women in places they don’t want to be. …
The second thing is you have to know how to value yourself. Research your value in the marketplace. Create value for yourself. … You get confidence when you know what you’re worth. All the other things you’ve learned along the way — leadership, organization, teamwork, the flexibility you can offer because you need flexibility. …
One of the success strategies is learn to communicate, to connect and to protect yourself. One of the things I didn’t do is, I knew there was something wrong in Buffalo but I didn’t document it. … For years I said, “I really think we need to look at pay discrepancies,” and they said, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, let’s talk about this new program you want to lead!” I keep doing more and more work, and thought, “Of course they’re going to compensate me.” I was so naive.