Pharmacy is becoming a highly female-dominated profession… but is its demographic mix reflected in its leadership?
According to Pharmacy Board data, more than 60% of Australian pharmacists in 2016 are female. Several industry players estimate that the proportion of female to male pharmacy students is even higher.
Yet only two of the 16 Pharmacy Guild of Australia national councillors are women, and 16 out of 86 Guild councillors are women. The Pharmaceutical Society of Australia fares somewhat better, with three out of its nine national board members women, and 44% of state PSA board councillors women.
After considerable social media discussion earlier this year at the Australian Pharmacy Professional Conference, centring around women’s representation on the conference program, the AJP ran a poll on its website to determine whether the profession thought this was good enough.
Overall, it didn’t. When the AJP followed up the poll results in April, we found that 70% of the website’s readers voted no: women weren’t adequately represented in pharmacy leadership and discussion. But why not?
A heavy ceiling
“What we see in pharmacy is not dissimilar to other industries, but it’s even more disappointing given the gender mix we have,” says Dr Alison Roberts, the PSA’s Executive Director, Policy.
“There are far more women pharmacists, there are far more women graduating, so we shouldn’t see the same representation as other industries – we should have more women! We should see that reflected in panels, in leadership roles, on boards of the pharmacy organisations, in speaking appointments at the conferences.
“Very frequently I will still attend a meeting and find I’m the only woman in the room.”
Pharmacy consultant Debbie Rigby says that while she’s been on numerous pharmacy boards and committees in the past, she feels worn down – and that she suspects generational change will be needed to fully combat the problem.
“I’ve got concussion from hitting my head on the glass ceiling,” she says.
“At conferences, for example in recent years we’ve seen panels with either no females, or a token female. It did improve at PSA16 this year; I thought the panel sessions were more balanced.”
Women in pharmacy interviewed by the AJP suggested a wide range of barriers to participation at an official level: from the way office-bearers are elected, to societal expectations, to plain old-fashioned sexism. And all had one more thing to add: that while the problem won’t go away any time soon, change is already underway.
Professor Lisa Nissen, immediate past President of the Queensland Branch of PSA, says that bias in leadership is not always a conscious decision.
“The people who sit around board tables are often men, and whether it’s conscious or not, human nature means we are drawn to people like ourselves,” Prof Nissen says.
“It is what it is. You’re more likely to go with somebody who is like you, because you’re comfortable with that kind of person – you’re used to sitting around the table with other people like you. It’s the same at universities and in government organisations.”
One of the main hurdles women face is the current process to get elected in the large stakeholder organisations, says Jenny Bergin, general manager of the Australian College of Pharmacy.
“Although we all tend to elect people we know and trust, the election process doesn’t necessarily deliver merit-based selection,” Bergin says. “In addition, it’s difficult to become well known and trusted if you’re not naturally a networker and self-promoter is tough.
“Another barrier is the current culture of organisations. I think it’s important to be a ‘cultural fit’ in any workplace or Board you join.
“But do we have the right cultures within the two largest pharmacy organisations? When I joined the Guild in 2000 I loved the organisation’s ‘can do’ attitude – it was an exciting and dynamic place to work if you wanted to contribute to make a difference.
“Traditionally the Guild has a reputation of being macho male dominated and although I found the experience of working with male Councillors a positive one, I did observe the impact of the male dominated culture on female Councillors,” Bergin told the AJP.
“The same behaviours that in men are assertive behaviours are seen as aggressive behaviours when displayed by women. I think it’s hard for women to be assertive in these cultures and stay true to the strengths (over men) that women bring to the Board table.”
ACT Guild Branch President Amanda Galbraith says that the Guild is currently working on strategies to improve diversity at the representative level, for women as well as multicultural pharmacists.
“We have great diversity in our staff at the national secretariat, and among many of our group executives as well, but we do want to see women more actively involved in the Guild,” Galbraith says.
“We’d like to encourage them to be involved in branch committees and use that as a stepping stone to the national council if that’s something that interests them.”
She says that one barrier to Guild leadership in the past was simply that women were less likely to be pharmacy owners.
“As our demographic of workers is changing, so is the demographic of owners of community pharmacies,” she says. “Over the last 10 years the Guild membership has changed, with many more women being owners.
“A large number of owners are mature men. If they want to sell, the demographic available to buy them is going to be 70% women. With men who want to sell, and women who want to buy, it’s a perfect solution.”
In the meantime, she highlights the progressive nature of the Capital Chemist group – Galbraith is a part owner of the Kambah store.
“More than 50% of owners in the Capital Chemist Group are women, and I put that down to amazing leadership from the original founders,” she says.
“They didn’t even see it as unusual to ask a woman to buy a pharmacy – they just found the best person available and offered them a partnership. And as it turns out, women are just as capable!”
There is, of course, much more to pharmacy than the big two stakeholder organisations.
“‘Official pharmacy’ is not for everyone,” points out Jenny Bergin. “Women are making a huge difference at the clinical coal face, in universities and in other pharmacy management areas. Many male and female leaders don’t take the traditional path of working their way up the professional body leadership “rungs” but exert their passion and vision for the profession within pharmacy group structures, for example Good Price, Discount Drugs.
“Therefore the benchmark for female representation should not be based on just two pharmacy organisations.”
Kristin Michaels, CEO of the Society of Hospital Pharmacists of Australia, says the situation is somewhat different in hospital pharmacy, with SHPA having “a long and strong history of very senior female participation”.
This may be because a large proportion of hospital pharmacists are in public sector positions, where there has been significant affirmative action, she says.
“Hospital pharmacy is a bit different: we have a better structure about supporting women back into work, particularly after a family break, which is easier than in community pharmacies where there may be a small business mentality.
“That’s an absolute positive, and in SHPA we have some amazing women – we reflect that in our education provision and our Board, which is pretty much 50-50 men and women, and those are elected positions, which is significant,” Michaels told the AJP.
Michelle Lynch, national PSA vice president, says that sometimes the profession will look toward well-known names for leadership, “but I think there’s a lot of amazing unsung pharmacists who don’t necessarily look for that recognition and just get on and do what they’re doing.
“For example, as the national hospital manager for Ramsay Health Care I manage a team that runs 41 hospital pharmacy departments across Australia, and within that 80% of my leadership team are female. They’re managing big pharmacy departments, delivering services to big hospitals and doing amazing things.
“Then there are women who are doing specialist work, such as Joyce McSwan, who has become a guru in the pain management field: she’s found a niche area of expertise and led the way in that.
“So I do think there’s a balance between those formalised roles and the less formal roles, and using all that expertise can only benefit the profession.”
Rather than continuing to boost the profile of existing pharmacist thought leaders, Dr Roberts says it would be useful to turn to some of these less-sung heroes of pharmacy when it comes to planning committees or conferences.
“When I see an all-male lineup, I feel deflated,” she says. “There are so many fantastic women in this profession, they have great voices and I want to hear from them if I’m sitting in a conference. That’s not to diminish what men have to say, but we hear from men all the time.
“You have to work harder to tap people on the shoulder and recruit them. When you’re discussing a conference panel and throwing names in the ring, unless you’re actively thinking about women our names don’t tend to come up.”
See Part 2 here including interviews with Taren Gill and Karalyn Huxhagen.