Nurses are undervalued because they are mostly women, new study finds

29 Jan 2020

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

Illustration showing figures in a crowd

A new study commissioned by the RCN shows that nursing is undervalued in status and pay, and that until both are enhanced, the UK will continue to experience severe nursing shortages.

The study, conducted by researchers at Oxford Brookes University, argues that the “old-fashioned view that caring for others is a feminine characteristic still persists in British society”. The study’s authors claim this has contributed to the suppression of nurses’ wages and working conditions for generations.

Nine out of 10 nurses in the UK are women. Their weekly pay is on average £15.42 per hour which is less than a third of that of doctors and dentists.

The study’s authors found that not only do nurses “routinely take on tasks that would have previously been the preserve of doctors,” they 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, indicating the high-level technical and clinical skills needed to do the job.

Dr Anne Laure Humbert, Director of the Centre for Diversity Policy Research and Practice at Oxford Brookes 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 deskilling and devaluing those involved.”

The study also argues that the dire shortage of nurses should have forced an increase in wages to meet demand, but because most nurses are women, the profession continues to be under-valued. One in nine nursing jobs are left vacant, while a third of the profession are due to retire by 2026.

The study, titled Gender and Nursing as a Profession: Valuing Nurses and Paying Them Their Worth, provides a breakdown of the gender pay gap, which shows that, unlike the rest of the health sector, differences are largely the result of gender differences in working hours rather than sex discrimination.

Despite the fact that women make up 90% of all nurses, they earn on average 17% less than men in similar positions per week. Nurses from an ethnic minority background tend to earn 10% less than their white colleagues, when other factors are taken into consideration.

RCN Senior Research Lead Rachael McIlroy said: “This report is 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 that this research will spark a conversation within the nursing profession, among nursing staff, 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.

“The RCN is ready to kick off this conversation about nursing and the impact of the workforce being mostly female. We hope our members and others will join in this exciting debate.”

Read the report.

Page last updated - 11/01/2022