Exploring Explanations for the Female-Male Earnings Difference Among Registered Nurses in the United States


Ulrike Muench, Susan H Busch, Jody Sindelar and Peter I Buerhaus

Sep. 01, 2016

A 2015 study published in JAMA found that the wage gap persists in nursing, with male nurses making $5,100 more on average per year than female colleagues in similar positions. This latest study aims to uncover the root causes of the gender pay discrepancy in nursing. Specifically, the study set out to test whether the female-male earnings gap could be explained by gender differences in: (a) career aspiration, (b) workplace experience, (c) time taken out of the labor force for childrearing, and (d) physical strength.

Some highlights from the study results:

Motivational Differences

When testing motivational differences between genders, results showed female RNs were not as geographically mobile as male RNs, moving less often across states, and changing employers less frequently than male RNs. No systematic gender differences were associated with changing jobs for promotion, but male RNs were more likely to change their job for pay.

Work Experience and Earnings

Female RNs under the age of 30 with up to two years of nursing experience earned $5,265 less compared to their male counterparts.

Labor Force Participation and Earnings

Female RNs between the ages of 40–45 with no children at home earned $6,207 less per year than male RNs with no children at home.

Physical Strength and Earnings

Men significantly outearned female RNs in all specialty areas (except orthopedics) and for all job positions (except middle-management).  These results suggested a significant earnings gap existed in specialty areas and positions of both physically demanding and physically less-demanding areas, such as pediatrics/newborn care and education and management type positions. Thus, in this analysis, men's physical strength advantage did not explain the gender earnings difference in nursing


Additional research to determine the role of gender discrimination in the nursing labor market is needed. However, the larger question and challenge for the nursing profession – and society at large – will be to clarify the values surrounding women's pay and develop supporting work-family policies accordingly. Given the expansion of nurses' roles in health care delivery, and the increasing numbers of nurses as the population ages, serious deliberations of how to respond to the earnings gap in nursing is warranted.