Poor wages, lack of support sees mum leave community pharmacy

Are women supported in the profession? A former community pharmacist and primary carer of two kids weighs in

By Chantelle Pennington

Is pharmacy a woman-friendly profession? The answer depends on your own personal financial or career goals, the dedication of the community pharmacy owner/s to support the female employee and individual family circumstances.

As the primary carer for two young children, in my experience community pharmacy is not a woman-friendly profession. However, I also don’t think that this is unique to community pharmacy, but to many healthcare professional roles.

Before having children, most if not all of the community pharmacies that I worked for were owned by males. While I believe pharmacy was a reasonable choice of career, I have experienced customers refer to me as “the little girl” or blatantly want to speak to the male pharmacist over a female one. This is possibly a societal problem rather than anything exclusive to pharmacy.

Prior to my first child being born, I was working full-time hours for a small business pharmacist owner. After children, I tried to navigate the part-time community pharmacist role while being the primary carer.

While I was keen to return to work, the owner came to visit me when my baby was six weeks old and he solidly wanted to know if I would return to work earlier than 12 months, and what flexible working arrangements I required when I did return.

I can understand the small business owner’s perspective, but it meant that I had to try to make a decision about work while trying to grapple with a newborn baby, which made me feel anxious.

When I did return to work, at times I felt that the flexible working arrangements I requested, such as leaving earlier (e.g. to collect my one year old from a 10-hour day at daycare) or an occasional sick day, caused some resentment among other pharmacists who were not in the same family position, perhaps because they themselves felt unsupported and unrewarded for their dedication – as it often fell on their shoulders to “pick up my slack” rather than on the owners.

When my second child was born, I feel I was ultimately made redundant on maternity leave due to my inflexibility. In this case, again the same owner pushed very hard to know when I would return to work, and in what capacity – this time before I’d even given birth!

The pharmacy ended up being sold four weeks before I was due to return to my previous duties, while I was still technically on maternity leave. If I wished to return, and work for the new owners, I was offered medication reviews because I “could work remotely” and that would be beneficial as a primary carer (I was also offered the occasional weekend shift, if I requested).

The fact that I was only offered mostly working-from-home arrangements to complete HMR/RMMR reports only reinforces that, had I been more flexible, I feel I would have returned to some form of position as a community pharmacist.

Of course, the new owners vehemently denied that it had anything to do with my inflexibility. Nevertheless, the individual that was offered the full-time role was the pharmacist who had been covering my maternity leave, not a primary carer.

After this experience, I tried to work in community pharmacy again in a part-time capacity, but it proved too difficult given the shorter hours I requested and the feeling of guilt if my children were sick. I felt very guilty about calling in sick, and on edge about receiving a phone call to come and collect them.

Perhaps on reflection, it also led to me sending the kids to daycare when they should’ve been at home, or having to ask my husband to take the kids with him to work, all because I didn’t want to let the rest of the team down and put extra pressure on an already pressured pharmacist profession.

Of course, if the remuneration been reflective of the sacrifices I felt I was making and had there been less stagnation in pay increases, then perhaps I would’ve felt differently and stayed in community pharmacy, and even perhaps thought about ownership opportunities.

I have even heard a story about a female pharmacy owner, due to restrictions of not being able to leave the shop without closing it, sending her eight-year-old daughter with a shop assistant to receive stitches.

There are three key areas that I think need to change in the profession, although these are not unique to community pharmacy: lack of support for the team (including those left behind to pick up the slack), stagnation in pay rises and poor remuneration.

If a woman takes on the role of primary carer, then she needs to feel more supported in the role when needing to leave to collect sick children or calling in sick. What’s needed is perhaps more education and, in general, more sympathy for the role of a primary carer and why they may need to “leave at 3pm to collect the kids” or have a sick day. Illness will always arise, so having a contingency plan if a staff member needs to leave will help other staff feel supported.

I can only imagine this is even harder in COVID times with lockdown of grandparents and more anxiety around sickness in general. Better remuneration would at least give females in primary carer roles a tangible benefit to the sacrifices they may feel they are making.

I am now currently a sole trader as a consultant pharmacist, and in this role it is entirely woman-friendly. I make my own hours and I can manage illnesses more easily. It is also a highly rewarding career pathway. So in essence, the question of whether pharmacy is a woman-friendly profession depends on which career pathway you choose and your own individual circumstances.

Chantelle Pennington is a consultant pharmacist and former community pharmacist based on the Gold Coast.

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