UK nurses paid less because ‘caring is what women do’

Nurses are undervalued in both status and pay because the majority are women, a new study finds.

Experts warn the UK will continue to experience severe nursing shortages if pay is not improved.

The study, commissioned by the Royal College of Nursing and carried out by the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) and Oxford Brookes University, argues that the “old-fashioned view that caring for others is a feminine characteristic still persists in British society”.

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Some nine out of ten nurses in the UK are women. Their weekly pay is on average £15.42 per hour – less than a third of that of doctors and dentists.

Experts warn the UK will continue to experience severe nursing shortages if pay is not improved

Researchers found that not only do nurses “routinely take on tasks that would have previously been the preserve of doctors”, but are constantly pushing forward advances in nursing practice. However, their pay does not reflect this.

Nursing is a graduate profession, with all new nurses required to have degrees, reflecting the high-level technical and clinically skilled nature of the work.

Dr Anne Laure Humbert, director of the centre for diversity policy research and practice at the university and one of the report’s authors, said: “Despite the growing complexity and technical nature of the work, as well as the difficult emotional labour it entails, ‘old-fashioned’ perceptions persist of nursing as a job carried out by women for whom caring is ‘natural’, thus de-skilling and devaluing those involved.

“We see care as a naturally feminine skill or characteristic. This sits in direct opposition to the high level of skills and professionalisation required in contemporary nursing.”

The study argues the shortage of nurses should have forced an increase in wages.

One in nine nursing jobs are left vacant. A third of the profession are due to retire by 2026.

The study examined the gender pay gap, showing that, unlike the rest of the health sector, differences are largely the result of gender differences in working hours rather than sex discrimination.

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Despite the fact women make up 90 per cent of all nurses they fill less than a third of senior positions earning on average 17 per cent less than men in similar positions.

Rachael McIlroy, RCN senior research lead, said the report was an important step in challenging and changing perceptions about nursing: “In reality, nursing is a complex and skilled profession yet too often nurses feel their voices are unheard and their value unrecognised.

“We hope it will spark a conversation within the nursing profession, employers, regulators and policy makers about the critical role played by the largest health care occupation in the country and how we better value it in terms of status and pay.”