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Those in power must combat bias within and without

Women in the workplace are still coming up against ingrained assumptions

To find out what sexism and misogyny look like, you don’t have to look far, says Una O’Farell. And it’s way past time for change

I could, for purposes of this article, trot out in the academic style common among us scientifcally minded types a succession of well-versed statistics about the proportion of women in pharmacy, and run through an itemised list of every inequity they face.

But I’m not going to do that. It’s frankly a bit dry. A real-world account of what sexism or misogyny looks like makes a much better story, even without creative embellishment. Rest assured, this isn’t a pious account of one woman’s struggle to overcome adversity: absolutely not. It is but a commentary on what is experienced in workplaces and in wider society, day in, day out.

Seat at the table

As a woman in pharmacy, I have in my time been described as ‘ambitious’ in a derogatory, would sell her (hypothetical) frst-born child to get ahead, way. I was also once described as ‘lacking ambition’ when I politely declined a (very mediocre) job offer in a dispensary, presented to me as “a great opportunity given your stage… you know, settling down”.

These statements may seem utterly at odds with each other, but they have something in common: sexism.

I have sat on committees set up to reform health services after successfully interviewing for the role, fair and square, only to be asked “what are you doing here?” by my counterparts from multidisciplinary teams (all men, by some strange coincidence). It’s quite an anomaly for ‘someone like me’ to be part of these board rooms.

Someone like me meaning a female under 40. Someone like me being someone who doesn’t employ people or, say, hold a senior management role in a trust. Someone like me who has cultivated space in their diary, away from responsible pharmacist duties, to contribute to such committees. Someone like me who, despite the aforementioned characteristics, might have something of value to say.

They seem to forget that ‘someone like me’ fits the demographic of the majority of registered pharmacists in the UK.

To be clear, sexism and misogyny are not ‘man’ problems. Females, males, the gender fluid, and the gender neutral can all be culprits. I’m also mindful that these comments are meant innocuously, with no intent to cause offence. But let’s be clear as to the effect these words have: they keep women small.

Pay gap

I have a friend who is dating and unapologetically expects the guy to pay. When it is put to her that this is surely in an act of outdated passive sexism on her behalf, she cites the gender pay gap. By virtue of him being male, he already earns 8-9 per cent more at the expense of her and other women.

Into the (non)bargain, in pharmacy land, no facility exists for women to pause their professional registration fee for the duration of maternity leave, or for those working reduced hours, perhaps in caring roles, to pay a reduced fee. Quite a startling omission for a workforce that is more than 70 per cent female.

Open to all

The National Association of Women Pharmacists (NAWP) was founded in 1905 and became part of the Pharmacists’ Defence Association in 2020. This is not a group of irascibles, perched perpetually on the verge of indignation and ready to ignite when someone says the wrong thing. Instead, the group discusses issues pertinent to women and how to make progress on them.

For example, in 2021, they launched a campaign encouraging employers to grant women protected time to attend their routine smear appointments. They have produced resources on living and working with menopause and endometriosis too.

And as with each of the PDA’s EDI groups, membership is open to all pharmacists – women and their allies. A person can back the key principles and make a rich contribution without holding the protected characteristic themselves.

Unconscious biases

To anyone reading this article who recognises the stereotyping or has found working life just that little bit harder by virtue of being a woman, I would suggest they consider joining NAWP.

I’d suggest the same to anyone who, reading these words, cringes slightly in the knowledge that they haven’t always got it right – just to listen and learn how to navigate these difficult issues. Remember, when you come from a place of privilege, equality can at first feel like discrimination.

And if you can’t do that, maybe check your own unconscious bias. We all have some, to a certain extent. Nobody need apologise for who or what they are, but we are all responsible for how we act towards others. And simply having nothing against women because your mother was one, no longer cuts it.

Una O’Farell is a member of the National Association of Women Pharmacists in Northern Ireland

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