Where are the women leaders in pharmacy?

women in pharmacy: pharmacist with a woman with baby

Most pharmacy leaders are men: so where are the women leaders in pharmacy? writes Samantha Kourtis

The vast majority of pharmacy students and graduates are now women; yet less than 20% of pharmacy leadership roles are filled by women.

A lot of people think they have the answer to this: biology. It’s a very large challenge for women in business who choose to have families.

The biology means that if you choose to have a family, there will be a period of time, whether that’s only eight weeks or a couple of years, where you will remove yourself from your place of employment.

The sheer physical effort of pushing a baby out requires some time away from the workplace just to recover… and then there’s breastfeeding.

But it’s not just the biology of it all that creates a disadvantage: it’s attitudes in business. People – male and female, policy-makers, banks, investors – will look at a job applicant who’s female and of fertile age, figure she’s got a uterus and so there’s a chance she’ll use it, even for a short period of time, and so they’ll see her as a liability instead of the great applicant she might be.

That means sometimes women aren’t presented with opportunities: employers and colleagues don’t mentor us, keep us informed or we may even be shut down if we try to access them ourselves.

As a business owner, with fertile women on staff, I don’t discriminate in any way when I hire staff, but I have to acknowledge that somewhere in my subconscious is a little voice telling me that this person might be likely to have a child and walk away from my business for a period of time.

I have to think about the impact that will have on my business, and I’m mindful of how that sometimes impacts my decisions to invest in that staff member.

…and that’s me! I’m a mum of three, and I’ve had really supportive employers who let me return to work when it suited me. And yet I do think about it, even while I know that it’s discriminatory.

So if I, a Telstra Businesswoman of the Year, have a little subconscious voice saying, “don’t hire this woman, she might go off and have a baby,” that’s an absolute guarantee that the attitude is everywhere, all throughout society and the business sector, and that it definitely does reduce opportunities for women, whether they have children or not!

While I’ve been here at Charnwood, I’ve had four staff members tell me they’re pregnant.

Pregnancy is one of the most amazing moments of your life. And yet when staff have told me they’re pregnant, they’ve all said, “I’m sorry”.

They shouldn’t be saying “I’m sorry,” but they all do. Our entire culture works to make people feel bad about telling the boss that they’re going to have a baby.

But here’s the thing: I’ve no doubt that female pharmacists, and male pharmacists too, when they become parents, become better pharmacists.

I actually enjoy having family men and women return to my business after they’ve had a baby: they bring a lot of valuable new experience and understanding with them.

When they’re helping customers with babies or kids, or pregnant customers, they really know what they’re talking about, because a lot of the time they’ve been there. They can empathise with the patient and they have more experience with the products.

Parenthood isn’t the only problem, though. Employers may purposely limit the opportunities they offer all women employees.

We know the majority of pharmacy graduates are women, but the majority of business owners are men, and I have heard and experienced personally pharmacies where the business owners make all the decisions.

So when you’re a young woman working for an authoritarian male owner, it’s really difficult to make any changes in that pharmacy.

At Charnwood, I have staff – both pharmacists and pharmacy assistants – who have worked and are working with me to make changes. I love how they can come to me with an idea, and that as their boss I can say, “Go for it, why not?”

This is a business strategy and a deliberate choice. I think a good manager should be able to recognise passion in their team, and if you are an employer who has passion and love for pharmacy, it’s common sense on your part to lead your team and to empower that team.

If you give them whatever infrastructure they need, plan and strategise with your team how you’re going to do the program and paint a clear pathway for it, you empower your team. I do that and it’s always successful.

Change management throughout the industry at the moment is a massive problem. No one teaches us as pharmacists and business owners how to deal with and manage change.

We’ve got loads of young pharmacists coming on board, mostly young women, and business owners who are mostly men, a lot of whom are older, and who in many cases aren’t equipped to empower them and support them in supporting the business.

And this comes back to the issue of women leaders in pharmacy, and why so much talent is going to waste: you can’t have women leaders if we’re not given the same opportunities and empowered in pharmacies to begin with.

Samantha Kourtis’ pharmacy, Charnwood Capital Chemist, was the 2014 Pharmacy of the Year. Kourtis was also named ACT Telstra Businesswoman of the Year 2014.

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  1. Ashleigh

    I have no idea what the purpose of this article was? It starts off with the writer talking about how she does not discriminate – “I don’t discriminate in any way when I hire staff” yet then goes on to talk about how she is mindful of how this person might impact her decision to invest in staff.

    Is she for or against hiring and investing in female staff? I’m still not sure.

    The heading of this article raises an important issue in our industry, it is disappointing that it also shows that women (including the writer of the article) are not empowering and supporting other women in our industry. Personally I feel that a Telstra Businesswoman of the Year should have been able to put together a much better article.

    • Samantha Kourtis

      Thanks for your comments Ashleigh. I agree that my recruitment process wasn’t made clear. I’ve employed female staff at all possible stages of their fertile life from no plans to have a family, to pregnant, to postpartum and breastfeeding at work and any knowledge or expectation of their plans to have a family has not influenced their employment.

      My point that wasn’t made clear is the difference between being mindful of your thoughts and reacting to them. When I became mindful of my thoughts once I was a business owner I was actually surprised! How could I have those thoughts?

      This piece was to start a conversation about the impact of motherhood on opportunities in our industry. Is their even any impact?

      Your comments as well as Jarrod’s above raise another valid point. Are we doing enough to empower and mentor our next generation of leaders – females or males?

      I will argue though that in an industry where 80% of employees are women we should be seeing more than 20% of leadership positions held by women.

  2. Rightmoment

    My sense Studies in leadership,particularly those focussed on women in leadership is something that is both the responsibility of those who create the opportunity but equally for women to be confident in realising that the opportunity is deserved and that they should take the opportunity. Many women feel that their current positions are the best that they can “achieve” or “deserve” compared to their male counterparts who would propel themselves forward with potentially lesser experience or skill.

    Perhaps the question is more around whether the glass ceiling something that women self impose because of the constant battle between time spend after-work for the important networking vs. family time. Emotional conflict often leads to women with families reducing or absenting themselves from networking events which inturn limits their opportunity to partake in leadership opportunities.
    For me, the question is what current women leaders in pharmacy can do to support other women in the industry to reach leadership positions?

    There are many great women in leadership positions in health and perhaps women in pharmacy should take some time to learn from their approaches and their challenges. You will be pleasantly suprised to hear that the challenge of fertility were not barriers for their career progression.

    Finally, when we are looking towards what we can do to improve participation of women in leadership postisions, we should look to the incredible amount of research that has been conducted in this space by Isabel Metz, Mara Olekahns and Amanda Sinclair.

  3. Jarrod McMaugh

    This article makes me feel a little uneasy – I’m not sure if it’s the notion that women aren’t empowered to seek leadership roles, or the notion that men in leadership roles aren’t capable of mentoring women into these roles.

    Part of the reason this makes me so uneasy is because in my career, I am surrounded by women who demonstrate quite clearly that leadership is a genderless skill. From Michelle Lynch (who inspired me with her strong leadership in PSA Vic Branch, and now as VP of PSA national) through to my colleague in the pharmacy I work in, who is the best pharmacy manager I have ever worked with (or likely to).

    There are yet other examples such as Debbie Rigby, who I often disagree with in the politics of the pharmacy landscape, but who’s leadership and expertise I respect greatly. Lisa Nissen is one of the foremost pharmacy academics, and Jenny Gowan in pharmacy education and clinical representation. Lets not forget that one of the most important figures in Pharmacy at the moment – the health minister.

    Perhaps the thing that actually makes me uneasy is that despite this, it could still be argued that there is a need for this article to be written. Even if representation from women is strong, there will always be a need for strong leaders amongst the younger pharmacists to come forward – both female and male. Inspiring self confidence, enthusiasm, and ambition in our colleagues is everyone’s responsibility.

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