It pays more to be a man: how the gender pay gap in nursing persists

The gender pay gap: the more studies confirm its existence, the more hotly it is debated. Research has demonstrated over and again that, overall, men with identical qualifications consistently earn more than women to perform the same job. President John F. Kennedy already signed a law, the Equal Pay Act of 1963, which aimed to eliminate the gender pay gap. Yet, 55 years later, the gender pay gap has become only slightly smaller.

You may be surprised to learn that the gender pay gap exists in nursing too. When we last looked into it, we found that almost 90% of nurses are women. But the gender pay gap persists even in fields that have historically been dominated by women.

Photo of Saint Louis County Public Health Nurses

These public health nurses in Duluth, Minnesota are no exception: women still make up the vast majority of nurses. But gender pay gap studies indicate that, statistically, male nurses get paid more for doing the same job.

The 2018 Nurse.com Nursing Salary Research Report found that the average difference between male and female nurse salaries was about 8.25%, and that male nurses made an average of $6,598 more per year than female nurses. It’s not the first such finding. Three years ago, researchers found an overall pay gap of $5,148, ranging from $7,678 for ambulatory care and $3,873 for hospital settings, and concluded that “male RNs outearned female RNs across settings, specialties, and positions, with no narrowing of the pay gap over time”.

People have come up with a lot of different explanations to suggest other reasons than gender bias for the pay gap. One common explanation is the men tend to receive higher salaries because they are more likely to negotiate their salaries, and better skilled at negotiating. But the new survey found that this made little difference. Although men were indeed more likely to negotiate their salary (with 43% of men and 34% of women reporting that they negotiated salary “most of the time or always”), no statistically significant relationship existed “between negotiating and salary for either gender.”

Another common explanation is that men must be receiving higher salaries because they are more qualified or experienced, or work longer hours. Yet Jennifer Mensik, the author of the study, found this made no difference either. “Men make more money than women, even when taking into account total hours worked, their years of experience as a nurse, comparing ages and examining educational level and certification status,” Mensik said. Indeed, Mensik’s survey found that men made significantly more despite the fact that they “worked [only] a little more than one extra hour on average per week” and that they were less educated, less certified and had less experience working as a nurse than their female colleagues.

For Mensik, it’s obvious that gender bias is the root cause of the gender pay gap, she told Houston Chronicle reporter Jenny Deam:

The data speaks for itself. What I find disheartening is people will try to discredit it. We have to stop excusing that there must be some other explanation than what it is.

One of the most depressing things about the gender pay gap in nursing is how strongly it has persisted over time. The 2015 study that found a pay gap of over $5,000 per year even after adjusting for education, experience, and specialty was based on salary and survey data from between 1988 and 2013. After poring over survey responses from nearly 294,000 nurses, the researchers concluded that the gender pay gap had remained constant all that time. Unlike in some other professions, it hadn’t significantly narrowed at all during 25 years!

What do you think about the gender pay gap in nursing? Do you think there is any reasonable explanation other than bias? How can we start to eliminate it? Please comment below or on our social media posts and let us know what you think.

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