Opinion: Gender wage gap for nurses needs to close now
It is time that the gender wage gap for nurses is eliminated; women deserve equal pay for equal work.
In Australia, male nurses on average earn higher salaries than female nurses despite women making up the largest segment of the nursing workforce. Across the healthcare workforce, the wage gap divide is even greater.
Currently, Australia’s national gender pay gap is 14.2%. As at May 2021, women’s average weekly ordinary full-time earnings across all industries and occupations was $1575.00 compared to men’s average weekly ordinary full-time earnings of $1837.00. This means that on average, women earn $261.50 less than men.
In the healthcare and social assistance sector, which includes nurses, the gap is even wider. Women’s average weekly ordinary full-time earnings in healthcare was just $1570 compared to $1978 for men, a gap of $408.50 or a gap of 26%. This is a poor outcome for women given that the healthcare sector is the nation’s biggest employer.
In terms of nurses’ salaries, the gap has narrowed in recent years, but income discrepancies still remain. We know from the most recent ABS data available that the average weekly total cash earnings for male registered nurses was $1493.80, compared to only $1365.90 for female registered nurses in 2018. Female registered nurses earned around $128 less per fortnight. This gap needs to close. Nurses help to keep us alive and healthy, and the work of a female nurse is no less valuable than that of a male nurse.
This gap exists in the nursing profession despite it being mostly made up of females. Approximately 87% of all nurses and midwives are women. Many work part-time and a significant number stop working to care for children during their careers. These breaks and the need to work part-time while caring for family means that female nurses can be economically disadvantaged over their working lives and on average have less superannuation than male nurses, despite living longer.
It is important for all employers in the healthcare sector to help diminish the gender wage gap. All employers need to design jobs and career paths for nurses that encompass flexible work and encourage an organisational culture that supports flexible working practices or part-time work for both women and men.
More training opportunities and support need to be provided to female nurses who return to work part-time. This is to ensure that they are not disadvantaged in their career progression. Women are more likely than men to work part-time or flexibly because they still undertake most of society’s unpaid caring work and, as a result, may find it difficult to access suitable senior roles.
In Victoria, Western Health, for example, offers registered nurses who have had a period of absence from the clinical setting a ‘Nurses Refresher Course’. This course is designed to help nurses to update their knowledge, skills and build their confidence to return to work.
Culturally, there may need to be a shift in the direction to part-time management positions in health care from full-time positions to allow females to participate more in part-time management positions and job sharing.
The obligation is on healthcare employers to conduct a gender pay audit to help identify and address discriminatory pay, so women are equally compensated and valued. Under the federal law, the Workplace Gender Equality Act 2012, large employers (non-public sector employers with 100 or more employees in their corporate structure) and registered higher education providers have to report to the Workplace Gender Equality Agency (WGEA) annually on a set of gender equality indicators.
Employers with over 500 employees must also meet certain minimum standards, including having a policy or strategy in certain areas to support gender equality. It’s also unlawful under the Fair Work Act to discriminate on the basis of sex. Various state, territory and federal anti-discrimination laws also make it unlawful for an employer to discriminate on the grounds of gender regarding remuneration.
Globally, the United National International Equal Pay Day is celebrated on 18 September each year, and this year, it was a reminder to all employers that the gender pay gap is a problem worldwide, as well as in Australia. Globally, women are paid less than men, with the gender pay gap estimated at 23%, according to the United Nations. Progress on narrowing that gap has been slow. Women earn 77 cents for every dollar men earn for work of equal value — with an even wider wage gap for women with children. The UN estimates that at this rate, it will take the next 257 years to close the global gender pay gap.
Hopefully in Australia we can make more solid progress on eliminating the gender wages gap entirely in the healthcare and nursing workforce within the next decade.
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