Women Still Earn Less Than Men in Healthcare, WHO Reveals

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Despite representing 67% of the workforce in healthcare and caregiving sectors, women receive lower salaries than men in these areas and are more exposed to job insecurity, violence, and harassment. They also make up the majority in unpaid caregiving roles, accounting for over 76% of the people who perform these functions.

These findings come from the report “Fair share for health and care: Gender and the undervaluation of health and care work,” which recently was published by the World Health Organization (WHO). The document indicated that the inequalities in the sector negatively affect both women and healthcare systems.

The report pointed to underinvestment in healthcare systems as the main driver of gender disparities in the sector, leading to increased unpaid work and reduced participation by female workers.

The data suggest that the average gender pay gap in healthcare roles exceeds 24%. The calculation considered factors such as level of education, length of employment, and institutional sector (ie, public or private).

Disparities Not Only Numerical

Moreover, the gender pay gap exists even in occupations in which women are the majority, such as nursing. The gap is generally wider for women who have children and for those belonging to marginalized racial, ethnic, or migratory status groups.

Although they constitute the majority in the healthcare sector, women are still underrepresented in leadership and managerial roles. In several countries, while women make up the majority of employees in nursing and obstetric care, most medical specialists are men.

“While more women are entering traditionally male-dominated medical professions, gender imbalances remain. Across 35 countries with available data, women represented between 25% and 60% of doctors and between 30% and 100% of nursing staff,” according to the report.

The document also highlighted that the COVID-19 pandemic has worsened the situation for women in healthcare and caregiving. Studies suggested that professionals who have more direct contact with patients, and these roles historically have been performed by women, became even more vulnerable to the risks of the health emergency.

“Especially in the early stage of the pandemic, many health and care workers — often women and particularly those from Black, Asian, and Minority Ethnic backgrounds — were left without access to adequate personal protective equipment. Some reports have described how in some cases, the personal protective equipment supplied was not suitable for women’s bodies,” said the report.

Workplace Violence

The report indicated that female healthcare workers are also more exposed to violence and intimidation, often exacerbated by factors such as racism and xenophobia. It is estimated that nearly half of all workers in the sector have experienced some form of violence in the workplace.

The WHO document considered that there are “concerning patterns of violence against women health and care workers across the world.”

In the United States, approximately 30% of female physicians in academic institutions reported experiencing sexual violence in the workplace. In South Korea, 64% of nurses reported verbal abuse, while 42% indicated threats of violence. In Nepal, 42% of female healthcare professionals reported experiencing sexual harassment.

In several countries, professionals reported episodes of insecurity in the workplace and said that they feared experiencing violence, including of a sexual nature.

Double Shift

The volume of unpaid female work also surged during the pandemic. Women were also more likely than men to lose their jobs or need to take time off from professional activities to assist with family caregiving.

Overall, women are more likely to take time off from work or reduce the number of hours in their workdays, mainly due to the disproportionate burden they bear in family caregiving.

With lower salaries throughout their lives, women also have less capacity to save resources and receive lower pensions and retirement benefits than men.

Possible Actions

To overcome these and other inequalities and eliminate gender disparity in healthcare, the WHO suggests the following six measures:

  1. Improve working conditions in the healthcare and caregiving sectors, especially for occupations with a high female presence.
  2. Include women more equitably in the paid workforce.
  3. Improve salaries and ensure equal pay for equivalent work.
  4. Combat gender inequality in caregiving, protecting the rights and well-being of caregivers.
  5. Ensure that national statistics account for and value all work in healthcare and caregiving.
  6. Invest in robust public healthcare systems.

This story was translated from the Medscape Portuguese edition using several editorial tools, including AI, as part of the process. Human editors reviewed this content before publication.

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