Nursing. It’s the quintessential female profession. As my grandma explained to me, “For the longest time women could only be either nurses or schoolteachers.” Sure enough, historically and today in the US, women in nursing outnumber men 10 to one. The word “nurse” is feminized to the point that men must be qualified by their gender, referred to specifically as “male nurses.”
Because femininity is built into the job description, the serious medical work of nurses is downplayed as simply an outgrowth of women’s “natural” caretaker role. Despite doing much of the same work, doctors are perceived as the real heroes, while nurses are perceived as little more than public moms. The kicker is that, even though women are considered to be naturally better at the job, a new study finds that men are still paid more for doing it.
According to the recent study published by the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), even after controlling for age, race, marital status and children in the home, males in nursing out-earned females by nearly $7,700 per year in outpatient settings and nearly $3,900 in hospitals.
Over the last decades, men have flooded into the profession, shifting the definition of what it means to be a nurse. But these men seem only to have succeeded in elevating the profession for the “male nurse,” not “nurse” in general, as the pay gap did not narrow over the years studied (1988-2013).
The fact that male nurses are consistently paid more than female nurses is particularly baffling when we consider incidences of male nurses sexually assaulting their unconscious patients… Recently, male nurse, Andrew Hutchinson, was charged for raping two unconscious female patients and filming it. It seems that Hutchinson was aroused by the exploitation of vulnerability itself, as investigators also found a large cache of child porn at his home.
Hutchinson’s case is not uncommon. It appears that many men have committed the same despicable violation of the patient-healthcare provider relationship of public trust, often taking advantage of access to their patients’ drugs in order to ensure that victims will be sufficiently unconscious during the assault. In 2010, a male nurse was charged for raping a 17-year-old girl while working at the very same hospital as Hutchinson. And these are only the incidents which have been reported. In the words of one of Hutchinson’s victims, “It could have been going on for years, and there could be a hell of a lot more victims out there.”
Ironically, nursing is one of the most sexualized female professions in the cultural imagination. “Sexy Nurse” is a Halloween go-to, attached to the male fantasy of a wanton caregiver who will do more than just give their patient a sponge bath. However, in reality, it seems like it’s actually the men who want to sexualize the nurse-patient relationship, and they’re not just seducing, but drugging and raping.
The situation reaches peak irony when the JAMA study reveals that the biggest disparity in the nursing pay gap is actually in anesthetists, with men earning $17,290 more than their female counterparts. That’s right. Men are paid more than women in the area of medicine wherein they are responsible for handling the drugs for putting patients to sleep. I can’t even.
So, why are male nurses paid more? According to the JAMA study’s lead author, the data provides no explanation for the disparity. I’d say that’s an understatement if one takes the data of the whole picture into account, including the frequency of male nurses committing sexual assault. However, since male violence is rarely treated as systemic, researchers have done little more than to suggest that perhaps men are paid more due to “having better negotiation skills,” thus enabling them to start at higher earning salaries.
All I can say is this: men must be some hell of negotiators to not only mitigate their increased chances for committing sexual assault, but also get paid more on top of it. Hats off.
Susan Cox is a feminist writer and erstwhile academic in Philosophy. Follow her @Blasfemmey.