Women’s pivotal role in nursing dates back centuries, but Florence Nightingale whose 200th birthday is May 12th is credited with transforming it from an activity to a profession. Nursing has flourished becoming the single largest group of healthcare professionals. Nursing has provided many thousands of women with a rewarding profession. In turn, they have cared for many thousands of people in roles from school nurses, to midwives, to bedside nurses.
However, the nursing profession demonstrates not only the opportunities, but also the issues of gender discrimination and the barriers women face in American healthcare. Over 90% of the 4.2 million nurses are women. Yet even with this overwhelming preponderance of women nurses, only 60% of the Chief Nursing Officers (CNO) are women. A male nurse’s chances of becoming a CNO outweigh a woman’s chance. Although the gender pay disparity appears to be less in nursing than for physicians, it still exists and is manifested in several ways. First, on average women nurses earn about 90 cents for every dollar a male nurse earns. Second, men have a greater representation in the highest paid nursing disciplines than in the overall profession. For example, men comprise 41% of the nurse anesthetists, the highest paid nursing discipline.
Given the critical role nurses play across the healthcare system and the predominance of women in the profession, our healthcare institutions need to pay attention to the realities of women professionals. Women are the child bearers. Therefore, paid maternity leave must be provided to them in all healthcare institutions. Women are the primary healthcare providers for their children and other family members. Therefore, paid leave must also be available. High quality childcare and sick childcare needs to be accessible and affordable. These are needs that must be meet for all women.
The timing of Florence Nightingale’s 200th birthday and the numerous examples that nurses are playing in the current pandemic crisis offer a timely example of these needs for all women in American healthcare.