Closing the gender gap in pharmacy ownership

The Pharmacy Workforce Center recently issued its 2014 National Pharmacist Workforce Survey, which confirmed that pharmacy has shifted toward a female-dominated profession, with more women than men serving as actively practicing pharmacists and in management positions. The survey also supports the idea that pharmacy graduates can expect more career opportunities in the future, as nearly 50 percent of actively practicing male pharmacists are over 55 years old, thus approaching retirement age and eventually leaving the profession. Here, Eden Sulzer, who heads up Cardinal Health's Women in Pharmacy program, shares her thoughts about this research, and its implications for female pharmacy ownership in the next decade.

Q: What do you see as the most impactful findings of the 2014 Pharmacy Workforce Survey?

A: What I was most excited about is that women now comprise the majority of the pharmacy profession. Currently, 56% of all U.S. pharmacists are female - which is a natural progression from trends we've seen since the 90s, when we saw record numbers of women attend pharmacy schools. At the same time, this research proves what many of us who work in community pharmacy every day already know - the number of male pharmacists is continuing to decline, especially as many reach retirement age. Those retiring pharmacy owners will need to sell their stores to new owners - which means there's more opportunity now, than ever, for women to seize the opportunity of pharmacy ownership.

I was also very encouraged to see that we're now finally seeing parity when it comes to men and women in pharmacy management roles. However, the gender gap persists between men and women in ownership. That's where our Women in Pharmacy program comes in. We want to close that gap.

Q: What do you think is driving the overall trend of fewer women (vs men) seizing pharmacy ownership?

A: In my work with hundreds of female pharmacy students and female pharmacists, here are what I see to be the key issues that are contributing to the overall trend:

  • Access to capital - it takes money to start any business, especially a capital-intensive business like a retail pharmacy. Many female pharmacists don't believe they can raise the capital to buy or launch their own pharmacy and are concerned about their student loan debt, which often exceeds $100,000. While I do believe this is a valid concern - female pharmacists also need to know that there are resources out there, like Cardinal Health's Women in Pharmacy program, which can help them overcome this perceived barrier.
  • Concerns around work life balance - Many women pharmacists assume that other career tracks in pharmacy will provide them with more work-life balance. It's hard for them to envision having a family, children and also owning and operating their own store. Ironically, many of the pharmacy owners I know would tell you just the opposite. Yes, it's a lot of work. But when you own the pharmacy, you set the rules. You set the schedule and the operating hours. You can hire staff to provide you with the flexibility you need. That kind of autonomy is not always possible in other career paths.
  • Perceived lack of business acumen and lack of confidence - I think this is exacerbated by the fact that few pharmacy schools provide the kind of specialized business training that pharmacy students need to own a business. Women pharmacists sometimes feel they don't have adequate business training to own a pharmacy. Which brings me to my last point.
  • Lack of awareness - independent pharmacies tend to be concentrated in rural or very urban areas. Many pharmacy students are simply not aware of pharmacy ownership as a career option; and there are a limited number of pharmacy schools offer specific tracks focused on community pharmacy ownership.

Cardinal Health is currently conducting phone-based research with female pharmacists and pharmacy students to confirm some of these hunches regarding the barriers to pharmacy ownership. We're working to understand the root cause of this 'ownership gap,' so we can develop solutions to help women overcome those barriers.

Q: What steps can pharmacy schools take to address these trends?

A: An increasing number pharmacy schools are really recognizing the value that community pharmacy delivers to patients; and the outstanding career opportunities it can provide to their students. We're encouraged to see more pharmacy schools offering specific tracks for independent pharmacy - educating students about this career path, starting student chapters of NCPA, teaching students the basics about entrepreneurship and the business of pharmacy. A few years ago, we launched a scholarship programto support and accelerate the efforts of schools that have put the stake in the ground around independent pharmacy, and to date, we have invested more than $4.2 million in more than 20 universities, through that program.

On a related note, we all know that mentoring relationships can be an invaluable part of any career development process - but I think it's perhaps more important in community pharmacy than any other field of the profession. It's important for pharmacy schools to provide pharmacy students with more opportunities to meet and network with pharmacy owners; to develop internship and residency programs with independent pharmacies, and provide other opportunities for students to get real-world exposure to independent pharmacy as a career.

Q: Where do you see the most opportunity for aspiring female pharmacy owners?

A: Independent pharmacy has long been associated with rural communities, and I think that we're likely to always see some of the strongest community pharmacies thrive in rural areas. But independent pharmacies are thriving in urban centers too. I have been encouraged and inspired to see female pharmacists open pharmacies in urban locations, and cater to the needs of specific ethnic populations that live in those neighborhoods. I see a great opportunity for women to step in and lead community wellness for niche populations, in cities of all sizes. 

Q: Do you have anything else to add?

A: While the data indicates there's still a gender gap in pharmacy ownership, when I am working with female pharmacists every day, I'm encouraged. I think we need to remember that it took about a decade for women to close the gender gap when it comes to management roles in pharmacy. It's probably going to take some time to make a meaningful dent in that gender gap when it comes to pharmacy ownership.

I strongly believe that we really need to get more male pharmacists involved in this effort. The pharmacy owners I know - regardless of gender - have a deep-seeded belief in the power and value of community pharmacy. If today's owners want to see the legacy of independent pharmacy continue, we need their help. Today's male pharmacists need to network with female pharmacists; to actively reach out to become mentors at pharmacy schools; to reach out to initiatives like our Women in Pharmacy program to see how they can help be part of the solution. 

If we want community pharmacy to continue to thrive, men and women need to work together, hand-in-hand to overcome the obstacles (real and perceived) to female pharmacy ownership, so we can close the gender gap.


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