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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