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Women outnumber them 10:1. So why do male nurses get paid more?

April 10, 2014

    Dan Diamond, Managing Editor

    The gender gap in health care is well-documented. Male doctors get paid more than female doctors. Male researchers get more medical literature published than female researchers.

    But looking at salary data, I learned something new on "National Equal Pay Day" this week: Even in nursing, which is dominated by women—male nurses are outnumbered almost 10:1—men make more. The average salary per year in 2011 was nearly $61,000 for a male nurse, and just $51,100 for a female nurse.

    Drawing on Census data, you can see how this broke out across different levels of nursing. (Update: See comment here.)

    Why is that? The data seemed especially striking because women don't just make up the overwhelming share of staff nurses, but represent about 90% of Chief Nursing Officers, too.

    I took the question to our in-house think tank, the Nursing Executive Center. (Collectively, they have several hundred years of experience studying the nursing industry, working in it, or both.)

    One reason, they suggested: Some may be where the nurses work.

    "Anecdotally, I hear that many men enter the “high tech” nursing specialties—such as critical care," the Center's Jennifer Stewart told me. "These are often higher paid nursing specialties." 

    "Men also tend to aim for higher levels of education," Katherine Virkstis pointed out. "There are more men in RN programs than in LPN programs, and more men in BSN programs than in RN diploma or ADN programs."

    (These trends are seen in Census data: Ben Casselman, writing at the Wall Street Journal, noted in 2012 that "male nurses are more likely than female nurses to have a doctoral degree, more likely to work evening or night shifts, and more likely to be immigrants." Meanwhile, "female nurses are more likely to work in doctor's offices or schools, and are far more likely to be over age 65—a reflection of nursing's status as a female-dominated profession until recently.")

    There are other reasons that might not show up in an economic report, Center researchers suggested. Mused Joan Meadows, who worked as a hospital's Chief Nursing Officer before joining the Nursing Executive Center, men get fast-tracked into management positions. And men also may gravitate toward "oddball" positions that pay well, says Phil Beauchene (who has served in a variety of nursing roles, including CNO of a large, multi-specialty physician group). For example, men might become flight nurses on medevac helicopters, Beauchene points out.

    And there’s one more perplexing fact about nursing salary data. Female nurses may get paid less, but on one measure they come out slightly ahead, Anne Terry notes: They're more content with their lot.

    About 49.4% of female RNs agree or strongly agree that "my organization pays me fairly for my job," Terry says, drawing on 2013 Advisory Board Survey Solutions’ data from more than 70,000 nurses, compared to 47.5% of males.

    Track health care labor trends

    Every month, the Daily Briefing Blog takes a look at the latest jobs numbers, and what the new data tells us about health care hiring patterns. See last week's look at the industry's ongoing "slowth" in hiring, driven by a slowdown in hospital jobs.

    Go deeper: Access the Advisory Board's library of resources, practices, and insights on workforce trends.

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