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Male Nurses Becoming More Commonplace — and Higher Paid

The relatively high pay and high demand for nurses have made it one of a handful of professions attracting more men since the recession shifted the gender-employment picture. And now it looks like male nurses are earning more than their female colleagues.

According to a Census Bureau study published Monday, men account for 9.6% of all nurses in 2011, up from 2.7% in 1970. Male nurses earned, on average, $60,700 a year, while women earned $51,100 per year. (Until recently, the Census Bureau didn’t distinguish among various nursing jobs. Starting in 2010, it split the category of registered nurse into four occupations: registered nurse, nurse anesthetist, nurse midwife and nurse practitioner, and therefore is able to better examine men’s representation in the different occupations.)

Traditionally male professions like manufacturing and construction suffered greatly since the downturn. According to a 2012 brief by the Economic Policy Institute, a think tank, the construction sector suffered the largest job losses of any industry during the recession, followed by manufacturing. While women still outnumber men in the financial, education and health care, and leisure and hospitality sectors, the EPI said, “men have gained in each sector relative to pre-recession shares and now make up a higher share of the payrolls in each sector,” positing that the shift isn’t signifying an end to gender segmentation in the labor markets, but rather both men and women desperately responding to a dismal market where a stable job is the primary concern.

Indeed, so-called pink-collar jobs, in the health, social assistance and teaching fields, have been enjoying lower unemployment rates than other industries. For instance, education and health services had a 5.4% unemployment rate in January, compared with 16.1% in construction, 7.9% in manufacturing, 12% in leisure and hospitality and 8.5% across all categories, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

“Even in traditional female occupations – like nursing – men have an earnings advantage,” says Mary Gatta, senior scholar at Wider Opportunities for Women, a research group.

So how did male nurses get so far ahead?

The Census report points out that men have “typically enjoyed higher wages and faster promotions in female-dominated occupations” – known as the “glass escalator effect” (creating the effect that they are gliding past women as if on an escalator). Interestingly, even though women constitute a disproportionately high share of all nursing occupations, men are more likely to go into the higher-paid ones, like nurse anesthetists, and less likely to become licensed practical or vocational nurses, who are lower-paid. About 41% of nurse anesthetists are men (just 9% of all nurses are men), who earn, on average, $162,900 a year, compared with $40,200 for licensed practical and vocational nurses. (Specialized graduate education is required to be a nurse anesthetist, nurse practitioner and nurse midwife.)

Even among men and women in the same nursing occupations, men outearn women. Women working full time, year-round earn 93 cents for every dollar men take earn as registered nurses, 89 cents to the dollar among nurse anesthetists, 87 cents to the dollar among nurse practitioners, and 91 cents among licensed vocational nurses, according to the study.

The wage disparity, however, isn’t unique to the nursing field. In fact, the gap is smaller than the average across all occupations, which is 77 cents to the dollar.

Still, it’s commonplace for men to outearn their female counterparts in women-dominated fields, and it happens pretty early on, says Caren Goldberg, a management professor at American University’s Kogod School of Business.

There is certainly general wage discrimination across the labor market that can explain the nursing pay discrepancy, says Gatta. Another possible part of the equation, she says, may be our incorrect perception that women are particularly suited to health- and child-care work – that it’s a natural extension of their abilities as opposed to a skill – so a premium is put on the work when men do it.

Goldberg sees the influx of men into nursing as having a positive effect on wages for both sexes. A labor shortage combined with increased prestige conveyed by increased male representation in the field means “all nursing occupations have experienced salary increases greater than those seen in most other occupations. This benefits men and women,” she says.