Despite their reputation for caring, women have traditionally been under-represented in positions in the healthcare industry that carry significant responsibility. At best, they would be the nurse who was little more than an assistant to the male physician who made all the decisions. Over the past 50 years, this has been changing. Slowly, the barriers have tumbled as women have been appointed to positions of responsibility throughout the healthcare system and the role of nurse, where they traditionally dominated, has transformed to become that of an educated professional. While there are still barriers for women in their careers, increasing proportions of the future of healthcare will now be shaped by women.
Female dominated industry
The statistics around women in healthcare roles speak for themselves. According to the figures from the United States Census Bureau, women hold 76% of all healthcare jobs and have driven 80% of the growth in the healthcare industry since the beginning of the century. Around half of the women in the industry hold a college degree and almost a quarter have an advanced degree.
Although the gap is closing, men still make up more than half of some areas of healthcare including physicians, surgeons, optometrists, dentists and paramedics.
Nursing is the largest healthcare occupation and traditionally this has been the healthcare role most associated with women. The next largest occupations include psychiatric, nursing and home health aides. In both these roles, women make up the lion’s share of the employees at 85% of the workers, helping to account for the fact that they dominate the numbers working in the overall healthcare industry. Although the numbers are increasing, this dominance is not yet reflected in other areas, as two thirds of physicians and surgeons are men. At present the highest paid, senior roles are still dominated by men with the number of female CEOs in healthcare being particularly small compared to men.
Pay and opportunities
Women’s median pay has increased, but there is a divide between the higher educated occupations and the lower educated ones. For those educated to a higher level, there have been much greater salary increases and opportunities for promotion, while those educated to a lower level have seen a far smaller increase in salary and are unlikely to be able to strive for better jobs without pursuing additional qualifications.
A juggling act
One barrier to women seeking to advance their careers in healthcare is the many roles they need to play in their day-to-day lives that can leave little time for further training. Many women working in the healthcare sector are also raising a family, maintaining a home or providing care responsibilities for elderly relatives. Of course, men too have young families, homes and elderly relatives, but traditionally these are seen as ‘women’s work’ with the burden falling to them.
Attitudes to this are changing, but they are changing slowly, and for many women, their day job is just one more aspect of life they must juggle as opposed to it being their main focus. The need for childcare that can fit around changing shift patterns can also make it harder for women to work and gives them less choice as to where they aim for promotion.
With so many other concerns, attending a university to pursue the qualifications necessary to aim for better paid roles can seem to be an impossible dream, trapping many women in lower paid roles. An alternative to this is to enroll in a high-quality online course which gives a woman many more options as to when they study. For example, a woman who has taken a few years out of work to raise her family and wants to return to the workplace once her children start school, can fit flexible online study around her children. Alternatively, even a degree course can be completed quickly, reducing the time needed for extra support for the family or out of the workplace.
A good example of one of these online courses is the hybrid ABSN offered by Saint Joseph’s College of Maine. Designed to be completed in just 15 months by those who have previously earned a Bachelor of Science degree, a student can begin working as a nurse far quicker than they expect, taking the first step on a career path that can lead to senior roles in the healthcare sector with the pay to match.
Many jobs in the healthcare sector are growth careers with the demand becoming ever greater. Part of the reason for this is that we are living longer, and the geriatrics area of medicine is one place that will need increasing numbers of professionals, and nurses in particular. This means the healthcare industry is going to need to find ways to support people entering the profession and to retain them for the long term. Ways that might be considered would be better childcare provision, flexible working patterns so people can work around childcare and training programs that can support nurses in their return to work if they have taken time out to raise a family or care for elderly relatives.
Increasing numbers of women entering higher levels of healthcare occupations may subtly shift the focus of healthcare. At present, comparatively little funding goes towards research into women’s health issues, but perhaps this will change as women doctors, nurses and scientists take more leading roles in research projects.
With the need to ensure the talents of women in healthcare professions are being used, there may be more support programs and mentorships to ensure their careers can rise to the level their talent and expertise deserves.
As a sector that is vast and growing ever greater, there has never been a better time for women to consider entering the healthcare profession with opportunities at all levels. The vast range of careers means that there is likely to be something that will fit around your current commitments. With the rise of online courses making study more flexible, it is now easier than ever to gain the qualifications that can take your career to the highest levels. The pay gap may still loom, but it is decreasing and will hopefully continue to do so. The future for women in healthcare is looking bright.