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Our talent pool is leaking

This week I came across a paper about achieving gender parity in pharmacy leadership positions. Don’t get too excited, it’s still predicted to be about 10 years away! But it did make me think a bit deeper about why it might be this way. Pharmacy has been a female-dominated profession for many years. In my experience, while there are pockets where boys clubs exist, the vast majority of men I’ve come across in the profession are far from sexist. I know plenty of strong female pharmacists within the profession that garner respect and do good work. What’s going on?

When it was being talked about on Twitter, one of the comments from a ‘next-gen’ pharmacist wondered if we will be having the opposite conversation in in 20 years. I could see where he was coming from. From his perspective, he’s the sole male representative on a number of committees – maybe gender disparity is a generational issue? I’m guessing many early career pharmacists feel similar to him, that the future is female. I’m not so sure about those who have had children since starting their career will think it’s such a sure thing though.

We don’t seem to talk about the impact of children on career much in pharmacy. At least I’ve never come across it. It seems to be one of those things that despite occurring often, its rarely talked about openly and sincerely. There seems to be some sort of stigma attached. Acknowledging that you want to balance work and family life can be interpreted as being weak and less committed. Ignoring it and ploughing ahead professionally can be interpreted as being cold and unfeminine. Then there’s the judgement associated with not having children!

I think one of the positive things that’s come out of the Covid-19 pandemic is that it’s forcibly dropped the veil between work and home life. Talking about family responsibilities, and the impact that this has on career development has become (slightly) less taboo. So what the hell hey, let’s talk about it.

I can’t speak to other women’s experiences, so I’m going to stick to speaking about my own. This feels much more self-indulgent than I’m typically comfortable with, but I can’t think of another way to communicate it so I’m just going to go with it.

Let me start by explaining that I’ve never been a particularly clucky type of female who fawns over other people’s babies and plays with small children, but I have always wanted to have a family. There was never any doubt in my mind that if I was indeed able to have children, I would. In fact, the very potential of having children impacted my career before I even had either a career or children. Pharmacy made it onto my shortlist of careers in part because of the potential to continue working part time.

I started off in hospital pharmacy in 2003 where I was pretty happy taking on whatever opportunities presented themselves to me. One of the things I noticed early on though was that there seemed to be a gulf between those who were early in their career and those in the later part. There seemed to be a relative absence of female pharmacists in their mid-career (30 to 50) who were available to mentor those of us earlier in our career.

Over the years I took on whatever career opportunities came my way, but I never really got involved in the professional association side of things. Meetings and networking has never been my thing. I met who would turn out to be my husband in 2007. My approach was to work earnestly to establish myself as best as I could early so that I would be in a reasonable position to take a break and have kids around the ten year mark.

In 2011 an opportunity came up to take on a totally different kind of role establishing a pharmacy service as part of a community palliative care team. The following year I got married and turned 30. Amid these life changes I found myself feeling conflicted. On one hand, I was excited to be pursuing a new chapter of my career and doing pretty well professionally. On the other, my years working at the Women’s and Children’s hospital meant I knew all about things like fertility and age-related pregnancy risks that get worse from the 35 year mark. This wasn’t just some sort of quiet, self-reflective kind of conflict either. As soon as I got engaged, multiple people seemed to think it was socially acceptable to ask me about my plans for having a family (FYI, just because a female is of a certain age and in a committed relationship, it does not make it acceptable to ask about personal details like family planning).

Until I found myself in the situation, I never realised that the further involved you are in your career the harder it is to take a break from it. What appeared like a ‘good time’ to have children when I started out my career did not feel like it at the time.

By mid-2013 I found myself enrolled in a part-time PhD and working to finalise the ongoing funding for the pharmacist role I had successfully established. I was also pregnant with my first baby. I was not enthusiastic about telling anyone at work that I was pregnant. I knew my contract was due to end and was comfortable that I was not going to return to the role post-baby, but I didn’t want to risk my pregnancy entering into their decision making process about continuing the role. (I also worked with a lot of older women and I couldn’t stomach the thought of pregnancy being the only topic of conversation anyone talked to me about from then on.) Once the funding got finalised, I told them I was five months pregnant and set to work to get them in the position to find someone great to take on the role. We managed to do that and I left the role in their hands at the end of 2013 with my baby due at the end of January.

I experienced a bit of an identity crisis when I first went on maternity leave which I wasn’t prepared for it at all. I was expecting to get all into cleaning and home projects and stuff preparing for the baby, I didn’t anticipate feeling so lost. I never realised how much of our identity gets tied up with professional role and job title.

This feeling of confusion didn’t go away once my daughter was born. It wasn’t because I felt brain dead or unmotivated. Far from it. I was still enrolled in my PhD,  I was getting involved in other contract work in assessment and teaching. It was more like I felt out of the loop. I still attended the occasional local CPD event, but I felt like I had become an ‘other’ and on the outer professionally. People don’t seem to know what to talk to you about when you don’t have a neat job description.

I made the decision not to return to a ‘proper job’ following maternity leave, opting to continue my part-time PhD instead. I’m grateful to have been in a position financially and with a supportive partner where this could be a viable choice. I’ve been able to remain engaged and intellectually while maintaining enough flexibility to remain involved in family life, and welcomed my son in 2017. It’s been much harder to remain engaged in the professional community though.

While some of the challenges in engaging in the professional community relate to my priorities and how I want to spend my time, I have notices some major shifts in two areas that have created barriers that I am quite sure others would also experience- finances and time.

Pre-children, my expendable income was much higher and I didn’t care so much about spending $500 plus on a face to face CPD activity or even more to attend a conference. I was also employed by a public hospital so I had access to funding which made things much more reasonable. When you’re self-employed or working part-time (or at a low wage like a PhD stipend) it’s a different story.

The other major change has been time. Attending events in real time, be they face to face or online (e.g. webinar) becomes a challenge in logistics and negotiation. Anything that coincides with a meal time or bedtime is not easy to accommodate. Events occurring over weekends and requiring travel bring different considerations. Attending face to face CPD and conferences have become a luxury item for me.

I’m not sharing this to be a complainer, I’m just saying how it is for me. And I’m guessing that if it’s been challenging for me then there’s a good chance that there are others who have also encountered similar challenges. I don’t know what they are, but i think it’s worth talking about them so that we can understand them.

Achieving gender parity in pharmacy leadership isn’t just about fulfilling quotas or achieving representation targets on committees, it’s about making use of the depth and breadth of our entire talent pool. At the moment that talent pool has a great big leak in it. It’s time to fix it.