A woman of influence


Dr Alison Roberts

In the second of a series of interviews with the top five of our list of 10 Women of Influence in pharmacy, we speak to Dr Alison Roberts, PSA Executive Director – Policy, Advocacy & Innovation

  1. Do you think the full-time/pharmacy ownership expectation holds women back?

Pharmacy ownership is only one of many career paths available to pharmacists. There are 29,000 pharmacists and around 3-4000 owners (to my knowledge) – so the large majority will not go into ownership anyway and whilst I don’t think there should be barriers to women owning pharmacies, I don’t think the two issues (ownership and part-time work) should be conflated either…I am aware of pharmacy owners – both male and female – who work part time.

The expectation of full-time work, however, is a factor around female workforce participation in all sectors, not just pharmacy, and all setting, not just community pharmacy. There is evidence that not providing flexible work arrangements, including part-time, does hold women back from contributing. However, there also needs to be the same flexibility afforded to men, so that they can contribute more in the caring roles, which research has shown they want to be able to do. 

  1. How could women be better recognised and represented in pharmacy leadership?

We need to not get sucked into the “merit-trap” – which has been shown to cause bias in appointments (i.e. we instinctively appoint people who look and sound like ourselves, so if older men are doing the appointing…) and instead proactively recruit women into leadership roles. We mustn’t keep fishing from the same pool or we will miss the many, many women of merit who could fill these roles. 

For us to address the gender inequity in leadership, men too need to acknowledge its existence (and not say that doing so is inherently sexist, or against a merit-based system). Why? Because organisations with gender balanced boards and leaders have been shown to perform better. If men want a reason to support it – and they need to be the ones supporting it, as they make up the majority of pharmacists in leadership roles –  it’s as simple as that.

Providing work arrangements that allow women to take on senior roles while balancing caring responsibilities is critical to this too. I have been fortunate to be able to do this, through the support of both male and female leaders, and this flexibility exists in the team I lead too.  

  1. Do you think it’s short-sighted to focus on gender issues rather than the work a pharmacist is contributing?

This is not an either/or issue.  Of course a person’s work contribution is important, regardless of gender. We should be respecting, rewarding and recognising the contribution of both men and women equally. But we are not – that is clear when we look at pharmacist wage disparity (even accounting for part-time hours and time taken out for children, there is still a gap) and the paucity of women in leadership roles.  

We absolutely need to focus on gender because there is strong evidence that gender equity benefits everyone in society. We shouldn’t buy into the myth that merit-based appointments alone are not inherently biased and work against diversity…they do, and the recent AICD diversity report highlighted this as an issue for contemporary boards to address.

  1. Do we need affirmative action at the top? If so, why?

Things are changing but slowly. Targets, like the ones AICD is working towards are necessary because without them there is no real reason to look outside of the usual networks. Why? Because organisations – big and small –  perform better when there is diversity in decision-making. This extends beyond gender… we’ve all heard the descriptor of many boards as “male, pale and stale”.   Did they all get there on merit? Do they make the best decisions?

The hard facts are that a man is nine times more likely his female colleague to make it to a senior leadership role – and this is despite the fact that female university graduates have outnumbered males for many years (particularly in pharmacy). That’s a pretty good argument for needing a proactive approach.

We are an evidence-based profession…let’s not ignore the evidence of what works when it comes to diversity in leadership and the benefits that brings.

  1. Do you think women bring a different skillset to pharmacy and if so, how could that benefit the sector?

I assume this question means “different to men”? Let’s be clear that women start with exactly the same training and the same commitment as men – in fact they are often more highly educated. Our sector – and the health system – already benefits from the many women working as pharmacists and the knowledge and skills they bring. The benefits would be greater if we had more women in positions of leadership.

We need women leaders to act as champions of younger women but we also need men to champion their appointments.

 

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