Nursing is a field dominated by women, but a new JAMA study finds that the average female nurse earns about $5,100 less than her male counterpart—even when accounting for factors such as experience and location.
Details of the study
For the study, researchers at the University of California-San Francisco analyzed salary data from 1990 to 2008 using a discontinued government survey of registered nurses, as well as U.S. census data from 2001 to 2013.
The study found that the average salary for a male nurse in 2013 was about $70,000, compared with $60,000 for the average female nurse. When researchers controlled for factors such as age, race, marital status, education, and specialty, they found that the average male nurse was still paid about $5,100 more per year than the average female nurse. The average salary for all nurses was $66,973 a year.
Lead study author Ulrike Muench notes that the seemingly small gap adds up to more than $150,000 in lost wages over a female nurse's career. "We were somewhat surprised to see that this gap was so persistent over the years, given the female-dominated profession where you would think women may have caught up with men," he says.
The pay gap was smaller for nurses working in hospitals than those working in an outpatient setting. The pay gap also varied significantly by specialty. Male nurse anesthetists earned about $17,300 more than their female counterparts—the largest gap found in the study. The only specialty that did not have a statistically significant gap was orthopedics.
Possible explanations for the gap
They study did not specifically examine the causes of the pay gap, but experts said a variety of factors are likely at play. For instance, "A workplace may offer a bit more to the men in order to diversify," says Diana Mason, a professor of nursing at Hunter College of The City University of New York. According to the Census Bureau, only about 9% of registered nurses were men in 2011.
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Jennifer Stewart, who leads The Advisory Board Company's HR Advancement Center and Nursing Executive Center research programs, told NPR that "some gender discrimination" may be behind the pay gap.
However, experts say that it is difficult to determine the role discrimination plays in the pay gap. For example, Stewart notes that there are more women in senior nursing roles because men have only recently begun joining the profession. As a result, men often work more night shifts—which pay more.
Census: More men are becoming nurses
Peter McMenamin, a health economist and a spokesperson for the American Nurses Association, praised the study, but noted that it was limited by the relative lack of data on male nurses. Because only about 10% of nurses are male, "the reliability of the answers is less robust," he says. Although, he acknowledges the pay gap is persistent enough that is likely not a "statistical fluke."
More broadly, McMenamin says the pay gap in nursing is part of a much larger issue. "This has been going on for a long time, and it's not unique to nurses," he says. While the pay gap in the broader economy has narrowed in recent years, the latest census data show that women still make just 78.8% as much as men (Saint Louis, "Well," New York Times, 3/24; Tanner, AP/ABC News, 3/24; Brown/Kaplan, Los Angeles Times, 3/24; Rovner, "Shots," NPR/Kaiser Health News, 3/24).
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