Male nurses make $5,100 more annually on average than their female colleagues, according to a report that gages census reports from 1988-2013. While plenty of reports have suggested a pay gap in the last decade, this new study is the first to have measured gender disparities in pay among nurses over time. It states that despite female nurses outnumbering male nurses by ten to one, they earn 86% of what male nurses make. This gap is better than the national average of women making 77% than men, but nursing is a female dominated career. What causes this pay gap? How can a career field that’s rigid with its pay scale and practices have this much disparity? Is anything other than a national proclivity of paying men more than women to blame? In fact, there may be more than a few factors.
Working Odd Hours
Every nurse has worked a twelve hour shift, but not as many work night shifts, which generates a pay differential regardless of gender. A larger percentage of the male nurse population is more likely to work night shifts, earning the pay differential, than the percentage of female nurses. My wife works as a night shift nurse and there’s a much smaller disparity of female to male nurses (than the 10 to 1 ratio) on night shift.
The report—and many other articles based on the report—cite specialization as a chief reason for this gap. Nurses with a specialty make more money than nurse without one, and male nurses are more likely to have a specialization. This focus on specialization may come from the fact that there’s a large percentage of military veterans, turned male nurses.
Male nurses may only comprise 10% of the overall nursing population, but 30% of military veteran nurses are male and that means that they have access to the Montgomery GI Bill, which allows them to pursue certifications that they might not otherwise get. A certification in a specialization equals more pay. About 40 percent of nurse anesthetists are men, and nurse anesthetists make a whole lot of money.
Male Travel Nurses
These same articles that claim that specialization is the key reason for a male nurse making more than their female counterpart also focuses on the nurse anesthetist specialization as a means to punch holes in the argument. Male nurse anesthetists make $17,290 more on average per year than female nurse anesthetists. That’s a large gap, but these studies and articles fail to mention that most (and by most we mean over 75%) of travel nurse anesthetists are male, and travel nurses of any persuasion make more money than stationary nurses of the same ilk.
A male travel nurse anesthetist is more likely to take a remote position. These isolated locations need anesthetists as much as any other hospital, but they are willing—and sometimes forced—to pay handsomely for the same services, because of the job’s less than glamorous surroundings.
The Glass Escalator
I won’t completely discredit the study or the articles that support the report at face value, so I’ll mention the idea of the glass escalator. Most women know about the glass ceiling—the point in a woman’s career where she can no longer rise any higher, while her male colleagues rise to the top—but few have heard of the glass escalator. The glass escalator refers to how men in female-dominated careers, such as teaching and nursing, often rise higher and faster than women in male-dominated fields.
The glass ceiling and escalator could be two parts of the same coin. Women, knowing how hard it is when they’re the minority, could elevate their male counterparts in female-dominated career fields to overcompensate for the disparity in male-dominated careers. There could be a small percentage of this happening but the result in pay would have to be in the single digits of percentage points in the nurse wage disparity. We mentioned before that the nursing career field has strict pay scales and there isn’t a lot of wiggle room without adding additional factors like overtime worked, night shift differential, specializations, travel nurse versus stationary nurse, and even cost of living adjustments.
As with most things, there are countless factors that affect a study’s outcome. While we need to stay vigilant and make sure the nursing career remains equitable for all, we might not need to go on strike or march on Washington—yet.