Stories from women in pharmacy

Women in leadership panel at PSA17. Photo: AJP.

Is leadership in the profession male, pale and stale? This all-female panel shared their experiences in pharmacy

At PSA17 conference during the last week of July, Dr Alison Roberts facilitated a panel discussion about women and the pharmacy workforce.

The panel included pharmacy heavyweight Rhonda White; consultant pharmacist Debbie Rigby; Managing Director of Pfizer ANZ Melissa McGregor; Commonwealth Pharmacists Association Executive Director Victoria Rutter; Emma McBride MP; and Shefali Parekh, outgoing NAPSA president.

Challenges and choices

“Inequality has many dimensions of which gender is but one. However this affects over 50% of the population and we have to talk about it,” said Dr Roberts on opening the session.

“We’re a population that graduates more women than men and has more female registered pharmacists than male, but even after adjusted for work hours women still earn 13% less than men in the pharmacy sector.”

Rhonda White pointed out that the gender salary gap is not profession-wide.

“We don’t have a salary gap in our pharmacies,” she told the panel.

“I know there are some of our male pharmacists that our female pharmacists run rings around – or I should say, lead the way.

“Men should support women in leadership roles just by appointing them. What a find was Emma for Dobell, was Melissa for Pfizer.

“Regarding flexible working hours – if you’re collaborative and communicative with the staff member, invariably they come up with the best solution for the company. I’ve seen a lot of women subtly demoted after taking time off – they miss out on the annual salary raises etc.”

“I think sometimes people would just write me off because I was a woman.” – Victoria Rutter, Executive Director, Commonwealth Pharmacists Association

Victoria Rutter said it’s not always easy being a woman at the top of her field.

“[Despite my skills and experience] I think sometimes people would just write me off because I was a woman,” she told the audience.

“If I suggested something it would very much depend on who I was talking to. If they knew I came from a specialist background they would be more likely to listen.”

Debbie Rigby has had very similar experiences.

“I know I’ve been in boards and said things one hundred times and no-one listens, but someone with ‘pants on’ says it and everyone says, ‘That’s a great idea!’,” said Ms Rigby.

Shefali Parekh added that while 70% of the profession is female, it can be difficult for women – particularly young women – to speak up in the workplace.

“I have male bosses at the moment and it can be intimidating at times. One of the challenges can be the lack of respect – there’s that student age gap lack of respect, as well as a gender one, being female you can feel less powerful.

“The NAPSA board is showing female dominance… that shows what the profession could look like and that’s exciting.”

“The idea that a panel of only men is a complete panel needs to be challenged, especially by the men,” said Dr Roberts.

“Men: Be aware of diminutives: girls, hun, sweetie… the best one I got in a meeting was ‘sweetie pie’. We don’t need to hear about how to dress. And who picks up the plates after a board meeting in your office? Men, you can start there!”

The trouble with quotas

“I used to be against quotas because nobody wants to be there as a token female,” said Debbie Rigby.

“But the reality is that we’re not there yet. I think there should be targets but not quotas.

“Quotas mean there’s a specific number to reach. It is a challenge and PSA has made some good in-roads,” she said.

“What needs to change is the culture – if that doesn’t change, we’re not going to be able to make a difference.”

Ms White agreed with Ms Rigby.

“I was always against quotas too,” she said.

“I started being added to boards in the ‘80s, and at that time I really was the token woman. You weren’t expected to say anything… And as a principle I said a lot.

“But I think quotas have made good men aware of their responsibility.”

Emma McBride believes in increasing quotas in politics, something she says the Labor party has been working on to encourage, promote and advance women in the organisation.

“In the Federal Parliament, there’s 43 women. There’s been a significant increase but often these women sit in a marginal seat,” said Ms McBride.

“In Australia’s history, we’ve had 203 women in the Federal Parliament. A lot of people look at politics and take a big step back. But politics is about making decisions that affects people’s lives.

“Women have a lot of contribute about our understanding of systems and processes and problem solving. To see a problem and not walk by, to want to be part of the solution. In terms of a society, a decision-making body should reflect our community and women need to be part of that.

“[Sometimes] when stepping into a boardroom in Parliament there are only two women in the room. I look forward to a time in politics when we’re discussing diversity and it’s not about gender. Politics should be representative of the community.”

“Women are not necessarily very confident at pursuing things out of their comfort zone.” – Melissa McGregor, Managing Director Pfizer ANZ.

Leaning in

Melissa McGregor said an important step is for women to get themselves a sponsor/mentor.

“Two things that happened in my career that were ‘a-ha’ moments for me to get to the next level,” said Ms McGregor.

“The first was that careers are not the same as they once were. That traditional sense of a corporate ladder to move up into seniority – it’s more of a career lattice, and about building a portfolio of experiences.

“The second challenge is that women are not necessarily very confident at pursuing things out of their comfort zone. I was contemplating moving into a whole different world and I was reticent, but a sponsor encouraged me to get involved and put myself forward for the role.

Rhonda White says she learned at a young age to look past ego, at the big picture.

“At 23, I thought, ‘there’s a job to do, get it done’,” said Ms White.

“I never felt the need I had to do it myself. I do very strongly believe in what they call ‘servant leadership’. It doesn’t matter where you lead from, it doesn’t have to have a title… it doesn’t matter if you’re a woman or a man. I think some people get too self-conscious about it and conscious about equality and leadership.”

Ms Rutter added: “When you see something that can be made better, that you think you can make a difference – it’s about putting yourself out there and not being afraid, learning what are limiting beliefs.”

Can women “have it all”?

Ms McGregor, the first woman appointed to the role of Managing Director of Pfizer in Australia, said it’s all about flexibility.

“It’s really important for organisations to maintain flexibility at all times, for men and women. It’s so much more than just working hours, it’s not just all about the children but it could be about other things in their life. Keeping a real focus on flexibility – it’s about trust and respect.

“Women need to see positive role models, to see that they can do these things. Women in senior roles need to speak up and illustrate to other people that it is possible. I have children and a husband, it’s possible to have a normal life and be successful,” she said.

“Can women have it all?” asks Ms Rigby. “I think that expectation is wrong. It’s all about balance and priorities, and what’s important to you at different stages of your life. Whether that’s family, career… it all goes back to your support mechanism. Having supportive partners and supportive children is really, really important.”

Takeaway quotes

“Act as sponsors and be sponsors.” Melissa McGregor

“If you can find something that makes you angry, makes you happy or excited by something in pharmacy – persevere and keep going. You’ve got to have that dream and be resilient.” Debbie Rigby

“After losing… Just doing it again is a success. Having the courage and resilience to have another go. Step forward for those roles, fall over like I did but get back up again.” Emma McBride

“As women we look after so many people in our lives, but we need to remember to look after ourselves and be aware of what our own needs are.” Victoria Rutter

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  1. United we stand

    Wow so much racism and misogyny in just the title alone! “male, pale and stale”

    • Owner

      Divided we stand!

      • United we stand

        😂 indeed. As an advocate for unity and an egalitarian, I’m obligated to illuminate any sign of disunity… Rofl

    • Ronky

      Actually it’s respectively misandry, racism and ageism.

      • United we stand

        I stand corrected Sir Ronky. Thanks for the clarification

  2. Jarrod McMaugh

    “What needs to change is the culture – if that doesn’t change, we’re not going to be able to make a difference.”

    This quote from Debbie is probably the most important line from this discussion.

    Quotas aren’t a long-term fix, and are very much like putting a bandaid on a serious wound…. it may seem to fix things, but if you look deeper the problems are still festering away. If they’re needed to start the change, then good, but they aren’t the solution long term.

    Culture is what we need to fix. We need to look at the barriers that stand in the way of equal representation… not just for women but for all demographics. We need to look at why people still consider the contribution of women to be less valuable than the contribution of men.
    Equality is good for everyone, and I look forward to the responses to this article that suggest that arguing for this is somehow misguided or patronising.

  3. olga

    What about this… less men joining the pharmacist ranks because men no longer want to be paid peanuts to dispense. So they gravitate to better paid professions. The tide will turn when students no long bother to study pharmacy but some other health related field because a pharmacist is one of the lowest paid professionals. The feel good about being a pharmacist only last so long until these young pharmacists realise they can’t buy a house in Sydney, or even in the outskirts, because they don’t get paid well enough. Then they’ll move on to other professions that do pay well.

    • Ronky

      Yes, I actually had one prospective employer tell me “I really see this position as one for a woman or a recent graduate”. Translation – “I want someone who will accept peanuts and not quit within a few weeks when he realises how poorly he’s being paid for what he’s expected to do.”

  4. Ronky

    Actually a 13% earnings gap is remarkably small, given that there are much higher proportion of women among younger pharmacists and employed pharmacists than among older pharmacists established in senior positions, and pharmacy owners. And no this isn’t because anybody places a “glass ceiling” prohibiting women from obtaining these higher-paying positions. It’s because most (no I didn’t say all) women pharmacists CHOOSE to take career breaks or work part time or seek less intensive or career-advancing positions because they CHOOSE to put time and energy into caring for and educating their families. And also somewhat of an historical effect that before the 1970s the majority of graduates were men, so there are a relatively lower proportion of older women pharmacists.

    Equality between the sexes means that everyone should be given equal OPPORTUNITIES to do what he/she wants, regardless of sex. It does NOT mean that “absolutely everything must be evenly divided 50/50 between the sexes, and if that’s not happening it’s because men are sexist pigs who block women’s advancement at every turn”.

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