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I see a cruel loss of talent at the top due to sexism in pharmacy

Johnathan Laird


I think we are losing, and therefore missing out on many potential great female leaders in pharmacy.


So cards on the table straight off the bat. I reckon there is a cultural or psychological confidence issue with women here. I think during their career most women will not put themselves forward unless they are sure of a positive outcome but men, on the other hand, are much more likely to ‘give it a punt’.


Let’s unpick that huge generalisation.


As you can see from the image above I am a (very young) man so perhaps my credibility when exploring the issue of women in leadership is possibly scuppered before I even start. Would it be more useful if a woman wrote this? Or better still a woman from a black or ethnic minority?


You be the judge.


I have spoken to many females over the last few months in an attempt to explore the ‘lie of the sexism land’ in pharmacy. The phrase I hear repeatedly is:


“Snowy white peaks”


Too many white men at the top I think is the assertion. And maybe they are right.


A few years ago the #metoo movement came to the fore. Taran Burke first coined the phrase on Twitter in October 2017. This opening gambit opened the floodgates to a multitude of public claims of sexual harassment and sexual assault in the workplace. Before writing this article I took a trawl back through the early contributions to the hashtag and some of the testimony is both shocking, compelling and left me with a sense of how quietly courageous women have had to be for years.


I feel that the most shocking stories are those that happen in plain sight. Everyone knew about Jimmy Saville but said nothing. Chilling.


My second realisation as I learn more about this area is the reticence of females to speak out about this problem in pharmacy. Sure there have been some positive attempts to discuss topics like ‘Women in Leadership’ and there have been reports of the gender pay gap. Journalists seem to love to quantify stories using numbers or percentages. But based on the conversations I have had with women in recent months I don’t think we are anywhere near the crux of this story.


The visceral fear among several of the women I have spoken to in the last number of months to go on the record anonymously is disturbing in my view. I offered to re-write their contribution to disguise their identity but the thought of doing this was obviously still too risky. Last year I did a series on bullying and the response was incredible and whilst no-one wanted to write so they could be identified I did receive a good number of contributions when the call went out.


Is this topic ‘beyond the pale’, am I looking in the wrong places or is there no issue to talk about?


So my feeling early on in exploring this topic is that the problem runs deep. There is fear and the fear is driven by power. Power over the career destiny of female pharmacists, especially those seeking leadership positions in our profession. My broad assertion is that this power is in the hands of men. This would not be the first time I have observed ”turkeys not voting for Christmas’ in pharmacy circles.


It appears that only the bravest and most courageous women will share their view on gender inequality on public platforms. In the public arena, it is the words that go unsaid that interest me most here. There must, therefore, be consequences for women who speak out. Otherwise why the fear? Why the refusal to go on the record?


Or maybe there is no problem at all and I’ve got this wrong from the outset. You tell me.


And then there is the issue of whether or not women in pharmacy should have children. I spoke to one woman recently who indicated quite clearly that there is no equality for women when it comes to having children.


“If I have children will I still reach the top?”


What a terribly unfair question for almost every ambitious woman to have to answer. As a man, I have observed the consequences of these decisions but I can never say that I was forced into deciding.


It appears that to continue to climb the ladder in pharmacy and also have children is really hard. And maybe this is where the first real barrier to reaching the snowy white peaks in pharmacy is placed in the way of ambitious women. As a man who now has a family, I do often feel guilty that my wife has had to work so much harder than me to keep up. In fact, my career has continued to progress whilst Holly stayed at home and parented our kids.


And there is another huge issue that I want to better understand. I choose the word ‘parenting’ carefully because unfortunately, my view is that human resources managers see this task of parenting, especially in the early years, simply as a cost.


Interestingly Holly now works as an equal partner in our business. She has come back in as a Director but the question is would she have got that opportunity out with our family business out in the real world?


I think not.


Most leaders in pharmacy are men. Just for fun, I wrote down all the leaders I could think of on a piece of paper before writing this article and despite the fact that we work in a profession dominated by women it is clear that this degree of feminisation is not reflected at the top. With the odds stacked against them, the women at the very top have risen and climbed what seems to be a much steeper hill than myself and my fellow male counterparts. I salute these women because I believe their route was more difficult than male counterparts.


If anyone knows this not to be true, again I am happy to be corrected.


And from the discussions, I have had so far men don’t notice. They don’t notice the subtle examples of unconscious bias that gently yet firmly reinforce outdated ideas and keep women in their place. I’m thinking about the males talking to each other and quietly sidelining the female members of the team. They might not know they are doing it but it appears to happen.


The women I have spoken to so far have felt patronised, excluded and belittled especially when in meetings. I’m not yet sure if these behaviours are commonplace.


“Why can’t you loosen up and take a joke?”


By no means are all men guilty but some who have influence appear to be. And it seems to be difficult as a female to do anything about it.


The only thing I am fairly sure of when it comes to sexism in pharmacy is that it is happening and continues to happen without much challenge. My assertion is that many women reading this article will have shared experiences. I suspect some of these experiences will be verbal and some, unfortunately, may well have been physical. There will be hurt, fear and damage done. If my early conversations are anything to go by cases of sexism in pharmacy are widespread and have hitherto gone almost completely unsaid.


I am willing to bet that there are loads of women reading this that have quietly succumbed to the subtle innuendo, the physical contacts or the unconscious exclusion by male counterparts and decided not to go for the top jobs.


Enforced self-sabotage.


Oh and finally I don’t think this issue is about money. There have been articles written trying to draw out the gender pay gap. I think pay is obviously important but like most things in life, money is just one part of it. This issue is much bigger.


As a white male I find myself sitting in the most privileged advantageous position in pharmacy so take what I say with a consciously incompetent pinch of salt.


That said I am intrigued to know if I’m hot on the trail of the truth or wasting my time by barking up the wrong tree. I also don’t see many men highlighting this issue.


The most interesting dichotomy in this topic is the response in public compared to the response in private. There was a brief conversation that caught fire on Twitter a number of months ago and the responses indicated that there was no problem.


“I’ve never had any problems working at…”


“Times are changing.”


However, the tone of what has been described to me in private has been almost exclusively the opposite.


When I observe a disconnect like this I know I am asking the right questions and I clearly have work to do.


So I need your help to confirm my hypotheses.


  • There is an inherent problem regarding lack of gender equality in our wider society which is also reflected in pharmacy.
  • This is exacerbated by intersectionality issues.
  • There is fear due to deeply ingrained culture and the consequences of reporting. This is usually disguised as something “other” so difficult to prove as direct discrimination and done in such a way as to discredit the reporter so that they just want to quietly slip away from the problem.


In summary, I think we have a few issues to understand within this topic.


  • Equity and/or equality in leadership issues.
  • Bullying of women in the context of sexism.
  • Inequality in parenting and general demeaning treatment.


I don’t mean to offend the vocal female leadership minority who are shouting about this from the top. You have made it against all odds. Again I salute you. Instead, I’m talking to anyone reading this article who is suffering these issues right now. Walking that difficult walk.


Perhaps you have already made self-sabotaging decisions and are feeling the consequences.


So the decision is yours. Know your place and suck it up or alternatively get in touch and tell your story. Perhaps it’s too late for your career but those coming behind need you to have courage and act.



3 thoughts on “I see a cruel loss of talent at the top due to sexism in pharmacy”

  1. Interestingly in Scotland most of the Directors of Pharmacy in the Health Boards are women as is the Chief Pharmaceutical Officer for Scotland, Rose Marie Parr!
    But in community pharmacy most of the owners and people who sit on the contractors committees are men!

  2. Unfortunately an issue not just limited to pharmacy! There is certainly a “leaky pipeline” on the way to the top for women.

  3. Yes actually it starts from pre reg positions and the opportunities afforded to women in the NHS especially if you are a mature student from a minority background you are definitely at the bottom of the picking list, it’s these same people who are surprised when you are hired by someone with a bit more foresight as a locum after graduating and need a Pharmacist who is more mature, worldly and experienced, so why do the Pre reg tutors not invest in those people from the outset, instead of wasting a valuable opportunity and resources by hiring Pre reg Pharmacists who have no interest in forwarding their clinical or hospital careers?

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