Interview: Anita White
Pharmacy bodies did not think the profession had a gender inequality problem. But they need to address it and fast, Anita White tells Neil Trainis…
“I can categorically say I haven’t had a pay rise since 2008,” Anita White says as she sips on a cup of coffee in the bar of the Hilton Paddington Hotel, weighing up whether women in pharmacy are still being given a raw deal compared with men despite rumours of progress.
Equality can be an emotive subject and the president of the National Association of Women Pharmacists (NAWP), who was due to step down at the start of next year, confronts issues around pay, female representation on executive boards and professional opportunities with no shortage of feeling.
Not that Anita is a hot-headed egalitarian. She comes across as quietly determined to make things better, even though frustration that things have not moved on as quickly as she would have liked lingers.
“More needs to be done on that,” she says dryly when asked if she thought women working in the pharmacy profession are treated the same as their male counterparts.
“Particularly once they take a career break. That’s when they begin to lose out. They were slightly losing out before then as well (in the way they were) being perceived. That’s what we seem to be finding.
“In hospital pharmacy, perhaps not so much but community in particular, is it that women are being offered smaller shops so they get less pay and the company can say everything is equal? That’s a possibility. I don’t know.
“But once they decide to have a career break, it’s the catching up when they go back, there’s more need for that.
“And part-time working, flexible working, you can get part-time GPs at equal banding but part-time pharmacists are possibly cast as not as equal banding. They tend not so much to be in managerial roles.”
It is unsettling to think that women are being offered jobs in smaller pharmacies to limit their earnings. Anita is asked if she has encountered this during her time at NAWP.
“Yes. That’s what the youngsters never realise and that’s where we possibly lost some of our membership. The youngsters thought ‘we’re fine, we’re all getting the same thing, we all graduated the same,’ but then we were talking to some of them who had only qualified two or three years and they assume now that women are treated equally because that’s the law.
“But the nuance in it is yes, they are treated equally but not completely equally. We have had cases where they did ask two of them who had trained together and the man was offered a larger shop and the girl wasn’t.
“She still got a job and she thought she’d still be the manager and that was great, but actually compare salaries and he was getting more. That was only after a few years.”
She ponders how many cases of this type she has come across since she became NAPW president.
“They don’t get reported to us. It’s really only anecdotal things we can pick up like that because we haven’t got the younger members in the group. We only hear second-hand usually.
“Sometimes we get the younger ones to the conferences and it’s then they begin to ask questions. But I think on the whole, the girls don’t ask the questions. They assume now that it is equal.
“They are beginning to realise that no, it isn’t. It is equal on paper, so the company is not doing anything wrong but the structure isn’t there, so the men always get offered the better ones.
“The men always ask for the better ones, is that the case? More women need more leadership roles, leadership training perhaps?”
Progress may well be illusory when it comes to gender equality in pharmacy. Harpreet Chana, a pharmacist and founder of the Mental Wealth Academy, told this year’s Pharmacy Show that women lag behind men in terms of earnings, marked by a 6 per cent pay gap.
“I would think that’s pretty low as well. I would think 6 per cent is an underestimate. It’s possibly more than that. There is this pay gap and it’s always going to be there.
“People thought it had been done by the legislation but it hasn’t and it still always needs to be questioned. That’s not necessarily what we’re all about.”
Anita, who has been on the pharmacy register for 40 years, insists it annoys her “that the youngsters are being treated in this way.”
Gender pharmacy pay gap
“For me, it’s never been a problem because I’ve mainly been all over and as a locum, up to a few years ago I would say, you always set your own rates and they accepted what it was and hardly anyone ever questioned what you got.
“You set your rates whereas now, you don’t set your rates. You’re personally being told by the employer. I can categorically say I haven’t had a pay rise since 2008.
“I’ll think you’ll see that there’s some research…I can’t remember which paper it was in, the locum rates peaked in 2008 and is slowly going back up but only about 50 pence an hour.
“Their rates said they’d peaked at about £25 an hour, we’d actually gone to £26 an hour, now it’s down to £23, £24.”
She says her male locum counterparts “may have managed to” secure pay increases during the 11 years in which her earnings stagnated. Yet it may simply be that locum rates are poor rather than gender inequality.
“Yes, but it affects women more than men because more women are locums because they are flexible working for themselves, that’s the way you tend to go.”
It seems the discrepancy in male and female pay is worse for black and minority ethnic women in pharmacy. Ms Chana said they can expect to earn 16 per cent less than males.
“Yes, again, that seemed like a very large number but they are obviously doing the research on that. We haven’t done very much research at all on that.
“It’s as silly as being male and female or being black and white isn’t it. It shouldn’t be there. It should make absolutely no difference.”
Gender inequality in society generally has been widely covered by the national press over the years although they have not devoted too many column inches to unfairness in the pharmacy profession.
“I think they always thought it didn’t happen in pharmacy, that’s possibly the case. Or nobody even looked. I’m not sure why in pharmacy it hasn’t been reported.
“Perhaps in hospital pharmacy, theirs is rigid, you’ve got to fight for your grade increase and wage. I’m not sure whether women are discriminated in there as well.
“But at least there is a structure in that one. But in retail (pharmacy), there is no career structure to it. It’s sort of hit and miss. You get to (be) manager of the shop, that’s fine, but the next step after that is very much hit and miss.”
Sexism and blatant racism
Ms Chana’s personal experiences, which she relayed to the Pharmacy Show, were not only of sexism but blatant racism.
“A few months ago,” she said, “I was working on a particular project and I was struggling to make traction with a company. I couldn’t make headway and I didn’t know what the problem was.
“And a colleague of mine, a white male, said to me ‘Harpreet, no matter what you do, unfortunately you’re just the wrong gender and the wrong colour for these people and they are never to take you seriously.’
“I felt like somebody had slapped me in the face. I couldn’t believe that in 2019, I was hearing this.”
Anita looks perturbed. “It is amazing that is still happening. It shouldn’t be. There should be no difference between male and female, black and white. It should be on who you are and what you do.”
Indeed, gender is only part of pharmacy’s inequality problem. “Religion is another thing,” she says. “There was one young Muslim girl who said she didn’t feel she belonged when she went into a shop because she had to explain why she wore a headscarf and why she ate the things she ate and why she needed to go out for prayers and things like that. She had to explain it all each time…more to the staff.”
Female representation on the RPS
She says pharmacy bodies such as the Royal Pharmaceutical Society and National Pharmacy Association have failed to draw enough attention to pharmacy’s gender equality problem.
“They haven’t done it at all. The Royal Pharmaceutical Society, whether it’s done any research into it, I don’t know, and again, the NPA, the same thing, whether they have looked at it at all.
“I don’t think they thought it was a problem. And I think lots of the youngsters didn’t think it was a problem because they’d been brought up through schools that they were equal in every way.
“(The RPS and NPA) should’ve been looking at it because all big organisations should be looking at all these things, whether it’s gender or colour or whatever it is.”
Anita agrees that female representation on the RPS is poor. Of its 14-strong executive team, four are women. Five women from 14 sit on its Assembly.
“When you consider nearly 70 per cent on the register are women, yes, it is (poor). They had got to a stage where it was quite good but when you lose one or two, your numbers go down.
“The RPS is doing this big thing at the moment aren’t they, gender and inclusion, but I think that’s twisted round now to more belonging which is the same idea I suppose, the inclusion side of that. They are doing a piece of work on it but it’s taking a long time.
“They’ve been talking about it for quite a while. By the sounds of it, they are going to put out a paper on it but is a paper going to do anything? A paper just states what they want to do. It’s an intent isn’t it. They’ve actually got to do something it and it’s got to filter down from that as well.”
Given the problems gender inequality still pose in pharmacy, it is depressing to think the profession might ever be without NAWP. Yet that was a distinct possibility last year when the organisation announced it was to wind up after 114 years having failed to find the support to keep going.
Anita said it was in talks with the RPS five years ago about becoming the professional leadership body’s partner, discussions led by Catherine Duggan, the former director of professional development and support at the RPS. Duggan left in April 2018. All of a sudden, talk of a NAWP-RPS partnership went quiet.
“We were in talks with Helen Gordon (former RPS chief executive) and Catherine Duggan. That was five years ago. We had five years of talks with them to try and raise the profile and get NAWP in partnership with the RPS,” Anita says.
“We got a say in some things but not very much but we were trying to get a place for NAPW in RPS. We couldn’t find a mutual place to put us, so no slots for us at all.
"We thought we were reasonably close with Catherine Duggan in her final year. We were getting somewhere but then things changed round and different things came up.
“We decided we weren’t getting anywhere. We were running out of people, money, everything, the time was to cease which is what we announced in May.”
NAWP-RPS talks ended abruptly
Duggan appeared to be making good progress in striking deal for NAWP within the RPS before it all abruptly ground to a halt.
“Yes, it seemed to disappear somewhere. I think other things took it over. Talks had been going on and it seemed quite sudden to us,” Anita says.
One wonders if the RPS offered any explanation for the collapse of talks.
“We were still talking. Robbie Turner (director of pharmacy and member experience at the RPS) took over but he took over a lot of other things as well because that was the trouble with Catherine Duggan. She kept being given other things. She kept the women’s side of it quite high up.
“(We) had good discussions with her and we thought it was all going forward but then Robbie got the job and his title got changed as well and it got dropped down the agenda I think."
Semi-autonomous network within the PDA
Anita is asked if she felt let down by the RPS. “I suppose disappointed more than anything.”
Then, as she enthusiastically puts it, the Pharmacists’ Defence Association (PDA) “came to the rescue,” agreeing a deal in October for NAWP to continue as part of the PDA. Or as she describes it, “a semi-autonomous network within the PDA.”
Revealing NAWP has less than a hundred paid-up members, Anita says: “They’ve got 17,000 women in the PDA. That’s quite a lot to collect. Publicity is going out to them, so it’s up to them to join (NAWP).”
She hopes to join the “new” NAWP as a member and help establish a committee within the PDA that could decide policies and hold meetings and workshops.
Suddenly, the future prospects for women in pharmacy look rosy. Anita offers a smile.
“Our move into the PDA will cement our history and heritage which we were worried about losing completely.
“If things are being looked after, this will be another women’s group, so hopefully we can exert a bit more pressure…to check and to ask and maybe get more women on to boards.
“I don’t think there’s a glass ceiling. It’s just a matter of getting yourself into a position to do it if you want to.
“Not all women want to. But if you want to, you should be able to.”