Creating the next generation of female pharmacy leaders
By Rob Darracott
Reena Barai, Harpreet Chana and Komal George make a formidable trio. Individually they have broken through organisational barriers, created thriving businesses and been the first to become board members on pharmacy bodies.
Together, they have combined their talents and established the Female Pharmacy Leaders Network to help support and inspire other women, and more women of colour, to reach leadership positions in the profession.
Founded last year, the network now has almost 350 members and is growing all the time. It holds monthly meetings to discuss topics covering anything from health inequalities to climate change, and has inspired several members to put themselves forward for leadership roles within pharmacy.
The impetus to set up the network followed the NHS International Women’s Day celebrations in 2021, when the three pharmacists held a panel discussion on ‘How can female BAME pharmacists find, develop and practise that #EverydayCourage to release their inner leader and rise up the ranks in the NHS?’.
“We were overwhelmed with the support we received from this event and realised we needed to do something bigger,” recalls Reena, a community pharmacist contractor, NPA board member, PSNC committee member and Cheam & South Sutton PCN community pharmacy lead.
Reena is the sole female NPA board member and the first Asian woman to become a PSNC committee member – “but I didn’t want to be the only one. I wanted a way of creating the next generation of women leaders”, she says. “I knew Komal and Harpreet felt the same way and after the NHS event I messaged them to say: ‘Let’s start a women leaders network’.”
Komal is a pharmacy business strategist and career coach, the co-founder of Forever Mountain Labs – which helps independent prescribing pharmacists set up their own private dermatology clinics – and an advocate for diversity and inclusion in pharmacy leadership. As former head of dispensing and supply at PSNC, she found that “there were no pharmacists who looked like me”.
“We know women pharmacists make incredible leaders – and we want to see more of them. What was needed was a safe space where women could support one another to release their ‘inner leaders’ and be inspired by one another,” says Komal.
“We wanted a network where women would raise up other women,” says Harpreet, an award winning global executive leadership and mental wellbeing coach, founder of The Mental Wealth Academy – which helps professionals build their self-leadership and self-regulation skills – and a pharmacist.
“We wanted a place where women could support, encourage and champion each other, and to share the benefits of our experiences. A women’s network for pharmacists was really needed because there’s little out there that supports women in pharmacy informally and regularly,” she says.
According to GPhC data released in May 2022, 62.3 per cent of all pharmacists and 86.3 per cent of all pharmacy technicians identify as female in the UK. Those who identify as female and BAME make up approximately 30 per cent of all pharmacists and 12 per cent of all pharmacy technicians.1
However, research by the University of Birmingham found that just 36 per cent of senior pharmacy leaders are women2 – “a shocking statistic”, says Harpreet.
One of the barriers preventing women becoming leaders within pharmacy is a "lack of confidence", she suggests.
I’ve spoken to hundreds of pharmacists – and I also see this as a coach – and time and again women pharmacists have a confidence problem. When so many female pharmacists feel that they don’t belong and are not worthy of senior roles, is it any wonder they struggle to apply for these roles? When women are looking up to those senior figures in the organisations they work for, they all tend to be men. Some women pharmacists do feel like once they’ve had a child, their career is stagnant –but it should not be this way. We wanted it to be a place that would “give women the opportunity to be vulnerable, to be honest and to share their experiences in an open forum where there is no judgement. We wanted to create an environment where women could benefit from the experiences of others in the group. And after every network meeting, our ambition was that people would leave feeling inspired.
Since February 2021, the Female Pharmacy Leaders Network has been running monthly, hour-long, virtual meet-ups, which are held in the evening. Members discuss all matters relating to female pharmacy professionals reaching leadership positions.
At the network’s first meet-up, the discussion focused on the barriers the co-founders had experienced to leadership. Since then, the network has covered such topics as allyship, white privilege, black history, as well as hearing from leaders in the profession about their career journeys.
“We have had some incredible women speakers who have talked about the barriers they have faced during their careers and how they coped with them,” says Reena.
The network, she says, has also built up “an army of peer mentors and role models – we talk about coaching and mentoring and what we can do for each other. We are each other’s inspiration and sounding boards.
“These monthly meetings also give the impetus for people to flex their leadership muscles, to not be so doubting of themselves, and to create a change,” she says.
Promoted via social media and word of mouth, the network now has members who sit on national bodies and are from community pharmacy, hospital pharmacy, PCNs, NHS England, pharmaceutical companies, digital health and more. And because the aim is to create a space that is inclusive, open and accessible to all pharmacy professionals who have leadership ambitions, network membership is not confined to women pharmacists.
The key word about these meetings is to ‘empower’. We build up our confidence as leaders and support each other to be able to step into those leadership roles. It is really important to have someone who can say ‘you can do this’. Put yourself forward. While we are encouraging women to become leaders within pharmacy, we can’t do that on our own – if we don’t have allies, then how can we move up to those leadership roles? So we encourage male pharmacy colleagues to join the network too.
In fact, professionals from all parts of the sector – including pharmacy technicians and those in hospital, community, industry, digital and research – can attend the meet-ups. The network’s ethos is that they all have ambitions to be leaders in their own right, no matter which sub-sector they are in.
One year on…
It is just over a year since the network was set up and already it is having an impact. Joining the network has inspired several members to stand as nominees for the RPS board elections. Several women pharmacists have been encouraged to apply for the RPS expert advisory groups, one member has secured a place on the RPS Community Pharmacy Expert Advisory Group, and many members are starting to present at conferences.
Feedback about the network also speaks volumes about its value. One member thanked the founders for “hosting a special place for us all to grow, and inspire and help one another to grow – creating the environment to help us be the best we can be in all aspects of our life”. Another writes: “Thank you for the monthly female power boost
I didn’t know I needed.”
The biggest success for us, says Komal, is when network members connect with each other. “That is what we love seeing – people building those connections and their confidence.” Already, the group’s founders are working to connect with other pharmacy support networks, including the Royal Pharmaceutical Society, and are looking to run collaborative events.
There are also plans to encourage more women members to lead the meet-up sessions to give them that experience of chairing meetings.
We hope to see more women putting themselves forward for leadership positions and to be given those roles. Come along to a session and see how it goes. We are a really friendly, non-judgemental bunch, and it is a safe environment where you can speak freely – and no one is going to take offence with what you say. As for the three of us, we just want to be the change that we want to see. We want to see more women putting themselves forward to sit on committees and to thrive in that environment. We are passionate about keeping that door open for women. This is one of the best things I’ve done in my career. It is just so heart-warming to run these sessions and to hear the lovely comments from people. And the togetherness that we’ve created – it is just magical.
Harpreet’s message to potential members is: “Come and be part of a supportive community where we all encourage each other to do well. Be part of a group that is not just about education – it is also about inspiration – which is what keeps us going,” she says.
And to women pharmacists who are also aspiring leaders, Komal’s advice comes from a phrase she heard at the NHS International Women’s Day event. “At times in your career you have to borrow someone else’s courage. I hope that is what we’ve been doing at our network meet-ups – giving others the courage to step up.”
For more information,
- Sign up to the Female Pharmacy Leaders Network
- Join the "become a confident female pharmacist or technician" private Facebook community
Naylor M, Pontefract S and Batchelor H (2018). Gender-balance in pharmacy: a review of the current landscape. Birmingham University