This International Women’s Day focuses on the theme ‘Inspire Inclusion’: championing diversity in leadership and highlighting the experiences of women from all walks of life.

The Pharmacist spoke to four female pharmacy leaders to hear how their different experiences of being women and pharmacists have influenced their work and leadership within the profession.

Sukhi Basra

Sukhi Basra, community pharmacy contractor and the second woman ever to sit on the National Pharmacy Association (NPA) board, suggests that imposter syndrome stops many women from taking a lead – and encouraging each other can help more women flourish.

‘We have big impostor syndrome. We don't feel like that we are worthy of [leading],’ Sukhi tells The Pharmacist.

‘I'll be very honest, that the only reason I came to the forefront of the NPA is because my other female contractors encouraged me to do that.

‘When females go into leadership, I like to think that we bring more with us rather than going on our own and then picking up the ladder behind us.’

Since Sukhi joined the NPA board less than a year ago, two more women have become board members – but the three are still outnumbered on the board of 14.

Sukhi says she has never felt like she has to prove herself. ‘When I joined the NPA, I wasn't sure how I'd be received,’ she says.

‘And I was really warmly welcomed. Everybody was so encouraging that I forgot I was the only woman. I always just came into the boardroom, feeling like: “I'm Sukhi, and I'm here to learn, I'm here to represent, and I'm listening”.’

Sukhi says it’s a ‘privilege’ to represent female contractors and bring her own perspective to the table.

‘Whether it's consciously a female perspective, I don't know. But I will always share my views in the way that perhaps they hadn't thought of before,’ she adds.

‘That is always encouraged, always celebrated. I've never felt that my opinion didn't matter at the table.

‘I feel I'm equitable with male board members in terms of my representation, or my voice being heard.’

Women have valuable skills for pharmacy:  ‘We almost treat our whole life as an SOP!’ Sukhi says.

‘Women need to juggle a lot more things; they're constantly thinking about things in the background. And as a pharmacist, that mindset is quite useful.

‘I feel like we're quite good as clinicians, we're quite tactful, we're quite methodical, we almost treat our whole life as an SOP [Standard Operating Procedure]! You know, you're out of the door at this particular time, everybody needs to be ready.’

And she says that as a mother and a community pharmacist, she’s visible and accessible to other women in her community who want to ask advice.

‘They've seen my children come and go from the pharmacy over the last 25 years – they've worked there, they've been behind the counter, or they've helped out and done deliveries.

‘All of that is part of being part of the community. And I think every pharmacy has their own little story of how they've been part of their community.’

‘The beauty of community pharmacy is it represents the community,’ she adds.

Women In Pharmacy Sukhi Team

Now a pharmacy owner together with her husband, Sukhi says she tries to empower and encourage the other women she works with – including enabling her second pharmacist to manage her own childcare responsibilities around her job and encouraging her to take on independent prescribing training.

‘If we didn't encourage each other, we wouldn't do anything, would we? You're capable of doing it. It's just someone believing in you,’ she says.

More women should be encouraged to take on leadership roles within pharmacy, including becoming pharmacy owners themselves, she adds.

‘There's nothing wrong with being business minded and thinking: “I would like to start my own business”. Perhaps universities need to encourage the female students to think that way as well, and not just assume that their male colleagues are the ones that are going to open up their own pharmacies,’ Sukhi says.

And she highlights the female contractors forum and female pharmacy leaders network as sources of encouragement for women in pharmacy.

Ayah Abbas

General practice and community pharmacist Ayah Abbas is president of the National Association of Women Pharmacists (NAWP), a network within the Pharmacists’ Defence Association (PDA).

She tells The Pharmacist she also struggles with imposter syndrome – and that she wants to create safe spaces for women to share their experiences.

‘We think: “am I good enough for this role? Am I doing it justice?” I think sometimes talking about how you feel to other women is important,’ she says.

‘When I was newly qualified, I saw a lot of women in leadership and I used to think, “that will never be me”, because no one really talks about their struggles, and no one talks about how they got there with their journey.’

But she says the NAWP network encourages people to come forward and raise their voices and their concerns.

Women working in community pharmacy might face particular issues around respect, she suggests.

‘Sometimes the public might think you're not good enough for that role or assume you're not the responsible pharmacist,’ Ayah says.

‘I used to feel a bit hurt, and I didn't feel like I was good enough.’

‘I think it was on International Woman's Day a couple of years ago, the PDA did an event, and it was about how women feel in pharmacy; if they experience any bad experiences or any discrimination. And that's when I felt that there was a group out there that I can get involved with that will make me feel comfortable my own skin,’ she tells The Pharmacist.

For example, she says the response from the network was ‘incredible’ when she shared her experience of struggling with bad period pains and having to stand up all day in a community pharmacy.

‘Everyone was like, “Oh, my God, I feel the same. What do you do with this? And what can we do to tell our employer, how do we approach it? How do we make this a normal, comfortable conversation for people?”

‘That conversation made me realise, the more you talk about things, you’re more likely to find someone, another woman, that's struggling with the similar situation,’ Ayah says.

These kinds of conversations could help women ‘stay in their jobs’ and understand what sort of adjustments to ask for around issues like childcare, menopause, and health conditions.

The network has been focusing recently on the issue of sexual harassment at work.

‘A lot of us do have that fear of reporting things,’ she said, highlighting particular concerns around students being unwilling to report incidents that happen during their training placements for fear of it impacting their chances of qualifying.

She noted how the PDA was trying to reach out to students and pharmacy professionals to support them to report concerns. PDA members can also access training around witnessing sexual harassment – including understanding what’s considered harassment and how they can support victims.

Amandeep Doll

Hospital pharmacist and head of professional belonging at the Royal Pharmaceutical Society (RPS) Amandeep Doll agrees that more could be done to open up conversations around sexual harassment in the sector – highlighting the RPS’s ABCD (Action in Belonging, Culture and Diversity) as a potential forum for women to share their experiences.

‘I think we need to start with creating that safe space for people to share and identify what the problem is,’ she says.

In addition to providing a safe space for victims, everyone within the sector needs to recognise ‘that it's their issue to do something about’, Amandeep suggests.

‘We find it with inclusion and diversity in general. You’re almost always talking to the converted, and it’s [about] actually: how do you get people in the room that need to hear the message?’

An International Women’s Day event hosted by the RPS this week included a talk on imposter syndrome that was attended by both men and women, which Amandeep says was valuable.

‘Yes, it's a predominantly women's event, but men also don't feel confident.’

Women in pharmacy Imposter Syndrome

Women In Pharmacy Panel

The event also focused on intersectionality – the multi-layered experiences of individuals within the sector, such as being a woman of colour, a pharmacist or pharmacy technician, or having a disability.

‘I think sometimes when we talk about women in leadership, we only focus on the gender piece. But actually, that’s just the tip of the iceberg,’ Amandeep says.

As a woman from a South Asian background, Amandeep says that throughout her career she had to consider whether to comply with cultural expectations like getting married and living with family.

‘Sometimes you feel pressure culturally that you’re not doing the right thing,’ she says.

When she worked as a teacher practitioner at a university, she says that South Asian students used to ask her how they could be like her.

‘That’s when it dawned on me that people need role models; you can’t be what you can’t see. So, if not me, then who,’ she says, highlighting the value of women with different life experiences carving out different paths.

And she says that bypassing expectations helped her think: ‘I might as well just do what I want now!’

Amandeep was part of the first cohort of the NHS Chief Pharmaceutical Officer’s Clinical Fellow Scheme – a prestigious placement designed to recognise leadership.

But often being the only person of colour and one of only a handful of women in the room meant she sometimes struggled with ‘huge imposter syndrome’ and working up the confidence to contribute.

‘I had never felt so aware of it before,’ she says. ‘I had to really build my confidence to actually speak up,’ she says.

Now, she deliberately tries to include people who might be less confident in meetings.

Collecting data on the pharmacy workforce is also ‘really important’ to improving understanding of different people’s needs and experiences, she adds.

Sehar Shahid

Online pharmacy owner and newly elected NPA board member Sehar Shahid says she tries to recognise the different hats her female staff wear in their day-to-day life.

‘Being a female, in any profession, I think has its ups and downs. Although I have three incredible businesses, I am also a mum of two young kids, I'm also a wife, I'm also a daughter, a sister.

‘I think people forget that you still need to do all those roles and wear all those hats as well.

‘The culture is still very much like: a women's got to do it all. She's got to be the very present mum, but she's also got to be the very career driven woman as well.’

All staff at her online pharmacy are able to drop their children at school, before they come into work. ‘For me, small things like that, I know make a big difference as a working mother.

‘I want my team to have that flexibility, be amazing mums, but also then come to work and really enjoy and be fulfilled in their role as well.’

It was her experience of ‘good and bad leaders’ that made her realise what type of leader she wanted to be.

‘I think as females, we have the advantage of having feminine energy as well as masculine energy. And we can balance that in different situations – for example, being kind and compassionate towards staff that perhaps, need a little bit more support, as well as making difficult decisions, and being very decisive and firm when it comes to business,’ she suggests.

And she says she wants her female-led business to focus on issues that affect women – like menopause and hormone replacement therapy (HRT).

‘Having a female at the helm of it all is really important to me,’ she says.

Women playing many different roles in life need to take time to ‘fill their own cups’ to keep doing all that they do, Sehar says.

‘We are juggling all the things, but I would say it's so important as females that we take time away, to really look after ourselves and fill our own cups, so that then we can keep going,’ she adds.

She also reminds others to ‘ask for help’ when needed, recognising that societal pressures can make women feel like ‘we’ve just got to do it all’.

‘I would encourage women to ask for help when they need it. Because there's absolutely nothing wrong with it, and actually, it's very brave to reach out and say: “listen, I need help”,’ she says.

Let’s embrace diversity and empower women leaders, says sector

‘This International Women’s Day, I want to acknowledge all women in community pharmacy. I particularly celebrate the tireless contributions of women across the sector, who work day in and day out to ensure patients and local communities receive the service they deserve,’ says Janet Morrison, chief executive of Community Pharmacy England.

She adds: ‘Our sector has incredible women from all walks of life making a difference and representing diverse communities. It's a tough time for community pharmacy, and yet I’ve met so many determined women pushing for our sector's success, including members of our team and those who are part of our committee.

‘We need to give more credit to women in our sector, hear their voices loud and clear, and work towards better representation for women across the board. It's crucial for women to work in environments where they feel valued and respected. I look forward to a future with more female pharmacy owners, and more women influencing in the various fields and levels of community pharmacy.’

Meanwhile, Malcolm Harrison, chief executive of the Company Chemists’ Association (CCA), says ‘there is much more that we as a sector can do to ensure women are represented in a variety of roles across pharmacy’.

A recent snapshot of the pharmacy workforce shows that across Great Britain 62.5% of pharmacists and 85.8% of pharmacy technicians on the register are women. However, we know that women, especially those from ethnic minorities, are underrepresented in senior roles in pharmacy,’ he says.

‘From the dispensary to head offices, CCA members have implemented several pathways and opportunities to recognise female colleagues. This includes career development programmes and policies specific to women’s needs at work. Our members are also proud to have two female Superintendent Pharmacists at the helm,’ he adds.