The “glass ceiling” is a concept that illustrates the invisible barriers certain individuals face when trying to advance their careers. In fact, there are some instances where these individuals are in the same position as others and still make less than their colleagues.
Unfortunately, women are often in this position — making “less than” their male counterparts. While it occurs in almost every industry, it’s particularly prevalent among essential workers, including nurses.
What Do the Numbers Say?
The 2020 Nurse Salary Research Report, conducted by Nurse.com and Relias, reveals some notable insights about the gender pay gap in nursing. Researchers compiled the report based on survey results of more than 7,400 nursing professionals nationwide.
Despite an overall increase in annual salary for registered nurses (RNs), the gap between males and females rose to nearly $7,300 annually. While the report did not specify what “secondary salary” encompasses, that gap is even larger at $8,000. Researchers noted only one hour difference in average hours worked per week and no difference in overtime hours between men and women.
There is also a distinct gap among advanced practice registered nurses (APRNs) when looking at an overall average. Men in this position earn $120,000 annually, compared to women’s $104,000 annual salary.
These statistics speak volumes. Female nurses need to understand why this gender pay gap is so wide — and what they can do to narrow it. Here are three foundational causes for the disparity in salary:
1) The Art of Negotiation
One significant reason for the gender pay gap in nursing is the cultural expectation of negotiation from men. On average, men are more likely than women to negotiate their salaries and request raises. The Nurse.com survey supports this notion, with 45% of male respondents saying they negotiate their salary “most of the time or always.” Only 34% of female respondents reported the same.
However, the “art of negotiation” is rarely explored a nursing education experience. Blake K. Smith, MSN, RN, president-elect of the American Association for Men in Nursing, a member of the leadership team of the Nebraska Action Coalition and clinical documentation senior analyst at Nebraska Medicine in Omaha, brings this to light in a Nurse.com article:
“Nursing provides great education on how nurses should advocate for patients, but we need education on how to advocate for ourselves, such as learning negotiation skills regarding pay, benefits and job opportunities. These are skills that are not embedded into the DNA of nurses or the development of our workforce.”
2) Logistical Compromises
Willingness to relocate to another state represents another potential difference in salary, as 23% of male (versus only 16% of female) respondents reported they would do so for higher pay. Similarly, men are also more willing to commute farther to work or choose a tract as a travel nurse. All of these “compromises” can lead to overall higher salaries for men.
Men’s willingness to relocate for jobs has a complex explanation, however, as many women bear responsibilities that complicate their commute and limit their flexibility — such as being the caregiver of children and elders.
3) Women Bear the Role of Caregiver
While there has been some progression regarding shared responsibilities within a family — even standardizing paternity leave — women still have the biological function of carrying children. Because of this, as well as a general societal expectation for women to be caregiver, women are more likely to have breaks throughout their career to care for children, especially if their spouse has a higher-paying job. We’ve come a long way from the societal expectations for women’s role in the family, but many women feel they are still pressured into these patriarchal structures.
Women are also often tasked with being the “caregiver” for aging parents. “Breaks in one’s career, for any reason, can take a toll on overall earnings and tamp it down over time,” states Robert G. Hess Jr., Ph.D., RN, FAAN, founder and CEO of the Forum for Shared Governance.
What All Nurses Can Do to Advocate for Change
The first step in narrowing the gender pay gap in nursing is for both men and women to acknowledge it exists — and how unfair it may be. Just stating it out loud isn’t enough, per Kelley Rieger, a 20-year nurse practitioner and founding member of Time’s Up Healthcare and the COO of Show Me Your Stethoscope, an advocacy group and online community for nurses and other healthcare providers.
“I posted…about the nursing gender pay gap in Show Me Your Stethoscope and asked people what their experiences were. The reaction has been very strong. A lot of people insisted it wasn’t true — even women said things like, ‘Stop playing the victim card. I’m so sick of this.’ Some men insisted it didn’t happen,” she notes.
Such attitudes indicate no immediate or long-term solution — but change can start now. Nurses in leadership positions need to champion for the “up and coming” nurses under their charge. In the meantime, Hess advises that nurses research the current job market and optimize their negotiation skills, including knowing when an offer is simply not acceptable.
“Job seekers need to study the market and research what the salaries are for the type of nursing position they are pursuing, what the going pay rates are in their area, and for the particular organization they want to work for,” he notes. “You also need to know what the lowest rate is you’ll accept, and if that’s not being offered and you can’t bring the number up, you also need to know when to walk away.”
Rieger understands the importance of negotiation but says it might need more open conversations among colleagues about the gender pay gap. She comments on systemic barriers, such as human resources departments discouraging nurses from negotiating for higher salaries.
Nurses can affect change. “What happens if you start having those conversations? Then, collaboratively, we end up having a little bit more power,” she said.