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The Gender Wage Gap Is Much More Troubling Than We Thought

New research indicates that men are earning significantly more even in traditionally female-dominated professions like nursing. (COMSALUD/flickr)
New research indicates that men are earning significantly more even in traditionally female-dominated professions like nursing. (COMSALUD/flickr)
This article is more than 6 years old.

The story line for the gender wage gap debate focuses primarily on women trying to gain ground in male-dominated professions. In other words: Can women achieve pay equity in the “Boys Club?” The answer, unfortunately, seems to be no and has been for 50 years. But what about in professions that are traditionally women’s strongholds? In nursing, a profession where women outnumber men by more than 10 to 1, one would expect the gender wage gap to be nonexistent. However, a recent research report suggests that the “Girls Club” may also undervalue the work of women compared to men.

In a 20-year study, the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) reported that after accounting for factors like “demographic factors, work hours, experience, work setting, clinical specialty, job position, survey year, state of residence, and other factors” male nurses make $5,148 more annually than female nurses.

With men accounting for only 7 to 10 percent of the nursing workforce, further investigation into the logic of this inequity is warranted.

As nurses we know many male nurses who are making higher salaries than we are, but we solely attributed the salary difference to male nurses working in higher-paying specialties — specialties such as anesthesia or critical care. But the specialties themselves are not the culprit: in virtually every sub-specialty of nursing, male nurses made more money, with male nurse anesthetists making $17,290 more than their female counterparts. With men accounting for only 7 to 10 percent of the nursing workforce, further investigation into the logic of this inequity is warranted. Although the industry wants to encourage men to pursue careers in nursing, the success of male nurses should not come at the expense of their female counterparts.

It seems reasonable to suspect that nurses (primarily women) are the decision makers about nursing. But who are the policy drivers related to nursing? If in fact a “Girls Club” does exist within nursing, then why are the women not doing well by their peers? Research shows that even when males and females have the same background and credentials, including years of experience, the wage gap still exists. This underscores the notion that part of the discrepancy can be attributed to gender-based pay discrimination.

It has been suggested that women may lack the same commitment to nursing jobs their male counterparts do. Exiting paid employment to have children and raise a family is often cited as a reason for pay discrepancy. Female nurses also leave work to provide unpaid care to other family members as well. Does this validate lower pay than their male counterparts?

What happens when race is thrown into the mix as it relates to the pay gap between female and male nurses? We already know that women make 77 cents to every dollar that men make. Blacks earn 64 cents and Latinas earn 55 cents compared to white men. Interestingly, a survey of 4,850 nurses across the United States was broken down by ethnicity and educational background, African American nurses with a bachelor’s degree reported earning a median $62,000. Hispanic nurses reported making a median $60,000, Asian nurses made a median of $50,000, while white nurses earned $70,000.

What are the possible solutions to eliminate the gender wage gap and to improve women’s earning potential? If nursing is any example, safeguards need to be initiated to ensure non-discriminatory hiring and pay practices, even in woman-dominated professions. Enhanced training, better career counseling including negotiation skills, and greater work-family supports would benefit females in nursing.

On this Equal Pay Day, let’s all pledge to speak up about the gender wage gap, today and every day, until we have true pay equity.

We need to ask questions about gender and racial diversity within healthcare organizations. Are there women in leadership roles? Are women or minorities being paid less than their white or male counterparts for equal work? Are nurses in specialties being paid the same wage regardless of gender? When we test our hypotheses about the hiring and employment process, we can begin to have a real conversation about the pay gap.

Communicating pay discrepancies via multiple media platforms is also essential. Keeping this inequity in the spotlight keeps the conversation alive for nurses. The sooner the pay gap is recognized as both a gender and a race issue, the sooner conversations among colleagues can begin and development, and implementation of policies that puts everyone on an equal playing field can happen.

The conversation on wage equity needs to span all workplaces, including female-dominated ones. On this Equal Pay Day, let’s all pledge to speak up about the gender wage gap, today and every day, until we have true pay equity.


This piece was co-authored by Angela Nannini, a nurse practitioner and health policy researcher. Nannini is also an associate at the Center for Women & Work,  University of Massachusetts, Lowell. 

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