Nursing - Paying the Price of Care

Nursing - Paying the Price of Care

Within days of the arrival of coronavirus in the UK, the value of frontline health staff came to dominate headlines.

The importance of nurses became apparent – against a backdrop of 40,000 vacancies and ongoing debates about recruitment, retention, pay and inequality.

For Dr Anne Laure Humbert, the spotlight emphasised the issues she, and colleagues at the Centre for Diversity Policy Research and Practice, had been researching.

Just before the pandemic hit, we published a report, produced in conjunction with the Royal College of Nursing, about inequalities and the gender pay gap in nursing. Our research showed that on average, across all health professions, women earn 30% less than men, and nursing is at the lower end of those professions. Our research uncovered the fact that BAME nurses earn 10% less than their white colleagues when controlling for other factors such as working hours – something of great concern, not least in the context of COVID-19, which has disproportionately affected BAME healthcare professionals. We also analysed the extent to which the gender gap in earnings is due to structural factors, such as working hours, or the result of sex-based discrimination. The most surprising thing we found was that for nurses, unlike for other health professionals, there is no evidence of discrimination on the basis of sex. Rather, it is the gendered construction of nursing – the way it is devalued as a feminised, caring profession – that accounts for the suppression of wages. In other words, nurses are paid equally – but badly.

The launch of the research coincided with the 50th anniversary of the Equal Pay Act: in the UK the difference between women and men’s pay is still significantly higher than the average across EU countries. The report contributes to the debate on how and why certain types of work are (de) valued and remunerated.

The arrival of the pandemic shifted the significance of the report up the agenda. Although nurses were identified as critical workers, and the nation showed their appreciation through weekly claps for ‘key workers’, the Government suspended gender pay gap reporting. As Anne explains, more research is critical to ensuring that the detrimental economic impact of the health crisis does not fall disproportionately on women.

We know that during and after pandemics, women often fare worse economically, for many reasons. Understanding what work we value as a society – including ‘caring’ professions like nursing – can help us to avoid this. At the Business School, we intend to continue our research in this area, applying more refined analysis, a wider range of measures and creating evaluation tools. It is important that in the post-COVID-19 world we improve transparency and fairness.

The research team included colleagues from the Oxford School of Nursing and midwifery.

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