Pharmacists share experience and advice at ‘Women in Leadership’ seminar

The seminar ‘Women in Leadership: Survive and Thrive’, led by Claire Thompson and Nadia Bukhari at the Royal Pharmaceutical Society’s London headquarters, discussed the challenges that women working in pharmacy face in 2018.

Claire Thompson, Royal Pharmaceutical Society (RPS)

“When I take my daughter to school, I don’t ask her to be good. I tell her to be fearless.”

These were the words of Tase Oputu, project lead pharmacist at Barts Health NHS Trust, to delegates at ‘Women in Leadership: Survive and Thrive’, a Royal Pharmaceutical Society (RPS) seminar held at its London headquarters on 27 June 2018.

Led by Claire Thompson, deputy chief scientist at the RPS, and Nadia Bukhari, senior teaching fellow in pharmacy practice at University College London and a member of the RPS English Pharmacy Board, the event brought together women from across the pharmacy sector to share their experiences of navigating the workplace.

Several themes emerged as the day progressed. Many women said they had been labelled according to a personality trait perceived as undesirable: Oputu reported being described as “too aggressive” when she demonstrated confidence in her role; something which, she said, is frequently experienced by other black women. Other speakers, including Emma Davies, advanced pharmacist practitioner and research fellow at Swansea University, and Catherine Duggan, chief executive of the International Pharmaceutical Federation, had variously been told they were too serious, too questioning, too emotional, and even too motivated.

Oputu emphasised the intersectionality between gender bias and bias based on and race and class, noting: “People see my colour first, and then that I’m a woman.” She advised delegates to take ownership of their career journey. Earlier in her career, she had become aware that she was being ‘leapfrogged’ by colleagues on the promotion ladder. “At the time, I thought that this lack of progress was my choice,” she said. She had obtained another MSc, in addition to her MPharm, and worked increasingly hard, “assuming that it would be rewarded”. This assumption, Oputu said, is known as ‘tiara syndrome’ — something she took from Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg’s book, Lean In. “It really resonated with me: that was what I had. We need to go out and take power, not wait for it to be offered.”

Oputu also spoke of the importance of a support network comprised of friends, role models and allies: something that was echoed by several other speakers, including Davies, who described her experiences of whistleblowing at an NHS trust. Davies opened by asking delegates to consider how the current trend for building resilience may have arisen. Is it, she posited, indicative of issues specific to the pharmacy sector, or of wider society? Referring to a Tweet she’d posted on the subject in April 2018, which had resonated with several of her followers, Davies asked: “Do women need to be more resilient than men? And should women just be expected to develop resilience, or should society address the issues that create the need for it?”


Source: Corrinne Burns / The Pharmaceutical Journal

Nadia Bukhari, member of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society’s English Pharmacy Board, led the seminar alongside Claire Thompson

Davies said she had not considered whether her gender had factored into her whistleblowing experience until she was invited to speak at the seminar. But, like other speakers, she had found her behaviour being questioned: she recalled being told to think about how she presents herself, and asked if she “had nothing better to do”.

Like Oputu, Davies recommended cultivating a support network, which may or may not be virtual. “Twitter has proved a miracle,” she said, for opening her up to a whole new network of people who support her. Davies also asked delegates to bear in mind that “being the only person speaking up doesn’t mean that you’re wrong”. 

Calling into the event from her office in The Hague, Duggan said that while many of her early career choices may seem strategic in retrospect, they were in fact based on a combination of her situation, opportunities, peer support and confidence. Duggan said she would advise her younger self to take opportunities, but not to feel pressured to take every opportunity: ask not so much if this is the objective right time to progress, but if it’s “the right time for you”. She added that there is something to be learned from tough times and that the value of these experiences may not become apparent until later. Above all, she advised, “stay true to ‘brand you’”.

Duggan pointed out that all of her advice applies equally well to men, who experience their own workplace pressures: not least, the sense that they must appear ‘strong’ and able to survive alone, without external support. Diane Leicester-Hallam, chief executive of Pharmacist Support, spoke of the personal challenges (and sometimes judgement) she had faced, often as a consequence of her gender: including being a single mother and being made redundant shortly after returning from maternity leave. Learning, growing and developing are her ways to overcome challenges, she said: Hallam went on to obtain a law degree while raising her first daughter. “Expand your knowledge base, understand your rights and responsibilities, and don’t get distracted by the perfect Instagram life. Money does not equal happiness.”

A white paper summarising the output of the event will be published in due course. 

Last updated
The Pharmaceutical Journal, PJ, July 2018, Vol 301, No 7915;301(7915):DOI:10.1211/PJ.2018.20205085

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