Elizabeth Newman, Senior Editor

It’s no secret that female registered nurses are paid less than their male counterparts.

On average, they made $65,612 in 2017 to the men’s $71,590, resulting in a collective pay gap of around $12.5 billion. In long-term care, female RNs, on average, are making about $4,000 less, in a field where they’ll also make less than their acute-care colleagues. RNs are on the list of top 10 occupations where women are losing out on the most money collectively, according to the a U.S. Census Bureau survey.

Here are some ways we justify this: Once women enter a profession, the pay goes down. Women take time off to have children. Women may not negotiate as well, or be too trusting of their employer to negotiate.

A new study illuminates how the last two are likely untrue.

Work published in Journal of Behavioral Public Administration on Tuesday illuminates how it’s a fallacy to assume women aren’t good at negotiations, or overly trust the people in the organization hiring them. Basically, we assert that women, in this case nurses, may not have the skill set to achieve a higher wage. That is made under the assumption that these women have never, for example, negotiated with a toddler, which requires a level of diplomacy just short of having a hostage released from a hostile foreign power.

The study, co-authored by University of Georgia’s Andrew B. Whitford, Ph.D., and Lehigh’s Holona Ochs, Ph.D., involved an experimental test. They describe it as the first study to examine gender differences in trustworthiness and “perceptions of benevolence in the context of hierarchical negotiations.”

“There’s a big debate about whether women negotiate differently,” Whitford told me Wednesday.

In what will not be a surprise to many of the nursing home administrators reading this, male or female, it turns out both sexes had similar negotiations outcomes in the experiment. Even with a small sample size, the conventional wisdom that men are better at negotiating their deals is probably not true.

Whitford and Ochs also found that women are not necessarily more generous than men, are equally motivated toward self-interested behavior when it comes to money, and are no more or less trusting than men of their superiors. However, people are more likely to trust them.

It feels similar to the recent movie “Widows” (set in Chicago! Directed by Steve McQueen! Why did more people not see this move?!). It’s where Viola Davis says about their heist, “Now the best thing we have going for us is who we are … because no one thinks we have the balls to pull this off.”

Whether it’s the belief that the nice lady down the street isn’t going to rob you of millions, or that the female hiring manager is going to treat you well, trust matters. Whitford explains a perception of benevolence and respect relates to whether you feel like you’re being given a “fair shake in the negotiation setting.”

“There is some neuro evidence that are parts of your brain that light up when you believe that you are being cheated,” he says.

The takeaway for long-term care executives from his and Ochs work is multifaceted. First, some good news: Whitford notes, somewhat ironically, that many managers may spend too much time worrying about pay rates and pay systems.

“Superiors don’t spend enough time thinking about culture,” he told me. “They don’t ask, ‘Are people pleased to work there? Do they want to do their best?’”

In what will be music to the ears of some positive administrators, he recommended considering whether employees are told, “Thank you for doing a good job,” on a daily basis.

“If it’s a negative environment, and if people don’t feel they are treated well, it may reflect how they feel they are treated on the pay side,” he says.

Second, it’s reasonable for women to frame their desire for a higher salary, as Sheryl Sandberg has recommended, in a “here’s what I bring to the table” framework.

But the “Lean In” philosophy is only half the battle. It’s also imperative that long-term administrators and executives look at their facilities to ascertain if male RNs are being paid significantly more, and ask why. Ochs told me ideas around Lean In “ignore the institutional constraints that impact women, particularly women of color. Consequently, notions like lean in imply that women don’t have the will or skill to lead like men and essentially blame women for the conditions of oppression.”

In other words, we can’t put systematic inequality on the backs of registered nurses to fix.

Follow Senior Editor Elizabeth Newman @TigerELN.