Women in Nursing: Closing the Gender Wage Gap

Since the advent of the Equal Pay Act 50 years ago, the salary divide between men and women has been steadily narrowing across many occupations. Yet a surprising study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association indicates that in the female dominated nursing profession, women continue to make less than their male colleagues.

Using data from two surveys spanning a period of 25 years, researchers found that among nearly 300,000 registered nurses (RNs), male RNs earned an average of $5,100 more than their female counterparts in similar roles. Factors such as work hours, experience, marital status, and clinical specialty can affect salaries, but the gender gap was evident even after accounting for those variables. Furthermore, the pay disparity between men and women in nursing has remained virtually unchanged since 1988.

These research findings are unsettling, particularly in light of the fact that men account for only about six percent of nurses in the United States. However, despite the overwhelming presence of women in the nursing workforce, male RNs out-earned female RNs in almost every setting and specialty:

  • In hospital settings, men out-earned women by $3,783.
  • In outpatient settings, the gap was $7,678.
  • The smallest pay gap was found in chronic care: $3,792.
  • The greatest pay disparity was among nurse anesthetists: $17,290.


Attributing Factors to Wage Disparities

While women today are arguably more assertive in the workplace than they might have been 30 years ago, recruiters and other hiring professionals report that men are more likely to negotiate higher salaries or better benefits.

The difference could be attributed to basic gender stereotyping behind the unbalanced pay scale. According to Anne Ladky, executive director of Women Employed, an advocacy group for working women, “The wage gap in these professions is often a consequence of unconscious but persistent bias — that men are simply more capable, that women with children are less committed to their work, and so on.”

How Do We Close the Gap?

In the wake of these latest findings, the question lingers: What can be done to close this stubborn wage gap? Here are some areas where we can start:

  • Nurse employers, particularly women in management roles, should evaluate their internal pay structures and take action to level the wage disparities between men and women in equivalent nursing roles. This is particularly important in high-need areas of health care such as primary care, long-term care, and home care.
  • According to Ladky, women in nursing often assume that compensation policies are more rigid than they actually are. As a result, they don’t ask for more money. The study’s findings should encourage women nurses to assume that salary negotiation is not only possible, but also necessary.
  • Increasingly, an advanced education makes it easier for nurses to achieve their career and salary goals. Having a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) can provide nursing professionals with a strong competitive advantage and the ability to pursue higher paying roles.

Although the findings from the pay gap study may be unexpected, they’ve ignited awareness and a dialogue that will hopefully help shape a more equitable pay scale in the future. This is imperative if today’s health care organizations are to attract the qualified nursing talent they need.