The Medstar Montgomery emergency room is strangely relaxed for a Thursday evening: most of the beds are empty and the patients in the few occupied rooms, including me, are quiet and calm. At the desk, a team of nurses is spending their holiday at work, caring for the ill and saving lives. While others are watching fireworks, these nurses are replacing IV drips, changing bandages, taking blood pressures, and administering medications. While both men and women make up this group of dedicated providers, I can’t help but notice that the majority is female, an observation that supports the stereotype that nursing is a job reserved for women. Although it may be surprising that an occupation in such high demand still suffers from gender inequality, this is sadly still the case for nurses across the country.
According to an American Community Survey Highlight Report conducted by the United States Census Bureau, of the more than 3.5 million nurses employed nationally in 2011, 3.2 million were women, but the number of male nurses has grown steadily since the 1970s and continues to rise. 41% of these male nurses work in higher, more specialized positions, such as anesthesiology (a position that represents only 1% of nurses as a whole), but a substantial salary difference is found overall. While male nurses earned an average of $60,700 per year in 2011, female nurses holding the same position earned $51,100 on average – a $10,000 disparity based solely on gender.
Historically, men have consistently been paid more than women for performing the same tasks with the same skill levels, especially with jobs considered to be more “masculine”. However, the inequality between male and female nurses takes on what could be considered a modern twist: in this case, men are favored in a role typically associated with women. The U.S. Census Bureau chalks this up to what researches term the “glass escalator”, a variation of the glass ceiling that many successful women face in the business world. Men are given higher positions with greater salaries more quickly than their female counterparts, simply because of their scarcity in the field.
Nurses are the backbone of the healthcare system, both in the DC area and across the nation; as the Association of Colleges of Nursing states, “Nurses comprise the largest single component of hospital staff, are the primary providers of hospital patient care, and deliver most of the nation’s long-term care”. However, even in this career, one that is both demanding and in high demand, gender inequality still exists. While the number of male nurses continues to increase, the glass escalator also continues to rise, not based on expertise or experience but on gender alone, adding healthcare to the list of employers who discriminate against women.