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‘More women in leadership roles crucial for fostering innovation and creativity’

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Multiple award winner Sobha Sharma sheds light on obstacles preventing female pharmacists from achieving leadership positions 

Women accounted for 62 per cent of GPhC registrants in 2019, according to the Royal Pharmaceutical Society. Despite representing the majority of pharmacists in the UK, only 2 per cent of women are pharmacy business owners compared with 13 per cent of men. Also, the majority of senior pharmacy leadership positions are held by men, with research showing that only 36 per cent of senior pharmacy leaders are women.

Sobha Sharma Kandel, superintendent pharmacist and co-owner of Neem Tree Pharmacy, Abbey Wood, London, quoted these statistics while shedding light on the representation of female leaders in the field of pharmacy.

So, what is stopping women from reaching leadership positions in the profession?   According to Sobha, the barriers hindering female pharmacists from attaining leadership positions include:

  • Gender Bias and Stereotypes
  • Lack of Representation and Role Models
  • Glass Ceiling and Double Standards
  • Work-Life Balance Challenges
  • Imposter Syndrome
  • Unequal Access to Opportunities
  • Negotiation and Advocacy Challenges

“There also continue to be gender and ethnicity pay gaps affecting women in pharmacy,” said Sobha, who has been advocating for women in pharmacy by being a part of the Female Pharmacy Leaders Network.

Need More Female Leaders

Sobha emphasised that it is important to increase the representation of female leaders in the profession because “having more female leaders will drive the profession forward as women bring unique perspectives and experiences to the table, which can lead to more innovative and collaborative decision-making.”

“By empowering more women to take on leadership roles, we can break down gender barriers, create more inclusive work environments, and ultimately drive better business and health outcomes. Ultimately, elevating women in leadership positions is crucial for fostering innovation and creativity in addition to being a matter of justice and fairness,” she added.

Challenges Women Face At Work 

Beyond her responsibilities as a superintendent pharmacist and a pharmacy owner, Sobha is a mother of four, works part-time in a local general practice as a clinical pharmacist, and is concurrently pursuing a part-time PhD.

According to her, the biggest challenge of being a working woman is “balancing a career and caring responsibilities for children and elderly parents.” She expressed disappointment that despite the advancements women have made in their careers and education, the responsibilities of caregiving and the emotional workload of the family are still often perceived as primarily belonging to women rather than men. “Most working women start their second shift upon returning home from a hard day of work, posing a real risk of burnout. Taking career breaks for childcare also hinders career advancement and contributes to gender pay gaps. Additionally, many women opt for part-time employment due to caregiving responsibilities,” she added.

Sobha was not an exception. She also struggled to coordinate childcare while balancing work and ongoing studies. Nevertheless, she considers herself to be fortunate to have “a strong support network” at home, including an extended family she can rely on when needed. Besides, she has found outsourcing domestic tasks to be a helpful strategy, allowing her to spend quality time with her family and be there for both growing children and an aging parent.

Sobha highlighted that women need “more flexible/remote working/ job share options” as the current working pattern is predominantly male-centric. “To enable women to thrive in their roles without compromising their personal lives, employers must establish policies that support work-life balance, such as flexible working hours, parental leave, and remote work choices,” she noted.

More women in leadership roles crucial for fostering innovation and creativity

 Sobha Sharma Kandel at the Pharmacy Business Awards 2023 

From Challenges to ‘Inspiring Woman of the Year’

Sobha was honoured with ‘Pharmacy Business Inspiring Woman of the Year’ in 2023. On receiving the award, she said, “I feel honoured and delighted to receive this recognition. This award has inspired me and my colleagues to work even harder and provide the best service possible to our patients, potentially contributing to reducing health inequalities in our community.”

Under the leadership of Sobha, her team at Woolwich late night Pharmacy has received numerous accolades, including the Pharmacy Innovation Award from Independent Pharmacist magazine for their COVID-19 hotel quarantine service and the Community Pharmacy Heroes Award from Pharmacy Business magazine for their significant contribution to the COVID vaccination programme. She was nominated by the Pharmaceutical Journal as one of the Women to Watch in 2023.

Her Reason For Choosing Pharmacy As A Career

Sobha recalled that as a child, she used to suffer from poor health and visited pharmacies frequently to get medications that would help her feel better. This early experience sparked her interest in Medicine and Science. “Moreover, pharmacists in their white coats always fascinated me,” she said.

At age 16, she started working at a Boots store as a pharmacy assistant on Saturdays, which she said “I enjoyed a lot, especially interacting with the patients.” As an A-level student, she got the opportunity to work at the Pharmacy department of Hammersmith Hospital, rotating around the different specialties and departments. There, she witnessed firsthand the direct impact that pharmacists had on people’s lives, and she realised that “this was the ideal career for me.”

Her parents, particularly her father, also encouraged her to pursue this profession as they thought that it was a good choice, especially for a female, given its perceived better work-life balance compared to a career in Medicine. Additionally, they saw it as an opportunity for entrepreneurship.

With her strong A-level results in Biology, Chemistry and Latin, she was able to secure admission to her preferred university – UCL School of Pharmacy (formerly known as the School of Pharmacy, University of London). After graduating in 2004, Sobha completed her pre-registration (foundation) trainee year at Boots and Great Ormond Street Hospital in London. Her first job after qualifying as a pharmacist was with Boots and after working there for a couple of years, she started her own business – Neem Tree Pharmacy in Abbey Wood – with the support of her husband in 2009. Soon, they opened another branch, Woolwich late night Pharmacy, in 2013 and two more branches followed.

Driven by her desire to be clinically focused, she also enrolled in a Pharmacy Practice (MSc) at Kings College London which included the independent prescribing certificate. Following that, she joined the first wave of NHS clinical pharmacists in 2016.

Committed To Addressing Health Inequalities

Sobha has been involved in many initiatives aimed at reducing health inequalities in the community. She has been volunteering with the charity AFNO (Advocacy for Nepalese Organisation) and providing health advice and health checks at her pharmacy on a weekly basis. This service has proven helpful for the elderly Ex-Gurkha patients who face challenges accessing healthcare services due to language and cultural barriers.

She has organised various physical and mental health awareness-raising sessions for the Nepalese community and actively participated in fundraising events. Additionally, Sobha has been supporting the charity CGL (Change, Grow, Live), offering health consultations to patients recovering from drug addiction at their clinic.

Sobha and her team have also helped in boosting COVID and flu vaccine uptake in BAME communities, thereby helping to reduce health inequalities in the borough. As a community champion, she supported NHS Greenwich and NHS Southeast London CCG, by creating videos in both English and Nepalese to encourage and promote the uptake of flu and COVID-19 vaccinations. Her team has also done various outreach activities in local community centres, temples and mosques as well as vaccinations.

Furthermore, Sobha participated as a main speaker in a webinar organised in collaboration with NHS Southeast London and the Royal Borough of Greenwich to increase awareness of COVID-19 vaccines within the Nepalese community, thereby working towards reducing health inequalities. Under her leadership, the Neem Tree Pharmacy team has also helped in organising an information session in conjunction with AFNO and public health Greenwich on latent TB for the Nepalese community in Greenwich.

Going forward, Sobha intends to have certain services commissioned by the CCG, building upon their existing initiatives, in order to implement them on a broader scale. This encompasses expanding outreach efforts, conducting educational sessions with local communities, and establishing clinics at the pharmacy.

The Future Of Community Pharmacies From Her Lens

A few years back, Sobha had mentioned in a Pharmacy Business magazine interview that the way forward would be the Pharmacy First service for England, which has now been launched successfully albeit with a few teething problems.

Looking ahead, she envisions the inclusion of more conditions in the PF scheme and pharmacies becoming health hubs, with the provision of diagnostic testing and treatment through the NHS.

She is excited about the next generation of pharmacists who will graduate with prescribing qualifications as they will be much more clinically focused. However, she underscored the importance of having “a proper mentoring and support system in place” for the new graduates to ensure that they effectively utilise their prescribing skills. This is crucial to avoid a situation where “everyone is a prescriber but fails to apply their skills appropriately.”

Talking about the challenges facing the sector, Sobha emphasised the need for increasing remuneration to address the existing workforce crisis in community pharmacies. “With adequate remuneration from the NHS, pharmacies could offer an attractive package to their staff, retain them, and establish a proper training pathway for career progression similar to that in hospital pharmacy,” she said.

How Pharmacies Can Help Improve Women’s Health   

Sobha acknowledged that there are clear and stark inequalities in health between men and women.

On how community pharmacies can contribute to addressing these gaps, she said: “I believe that expanding the clinical services provided by pharmacies via the NHS, with a specific focus on women’s health would be a significant next step forward. This could potentially be achieved through pathfinder sites, using the expertise of specialists such as independent pharmacist prescribers who can run women’s health clinics in community pharmacies.”

Along with the contraception service, she underlined the importance of establishing a hormone replacement therapy (HRT) clinic and a comprehensive service covering menstrual health, as well as pre- and post-natal care, for improving women’s health.

“A holistic healthcare model should be the path forward, but this will take time as we need good infrastructure, IT system, training, and remuneration for the services. Nonetheless, I firmly believe that community pharmacy can play a pivotal role in enhancing women’s health and thereby mitigating health inequalities,” she added.

Neem Tree Pharmacy currently provides all the NHS services including NMS, DMS, Hypertension service, Contraception service, smoking cessation service as well as NHS vaccinations. Private services offered by the pharmacy include phlebotomy, travel health clinic, vaccinations, health checks, minor ailments, podiatry, and ear wax removal service. Sobha has plans to expand their aesthetic offerings in the future as well as complementary/holistic healthcare provision.

Her advice for aspiring female pharmacists

For women wanting to get into this position, I would advise that hard work and resilience are your strengths.

  • Think outside of the box and create a vision of what you want to achieve and work hard towards that goal.
  • Be brave and believe in yourself and your abilities.
  • Do not miss opportunities when they arise, be confident and go for it.
  • Be assertive and know your boundaries and build a strong support network around you.
  • Be your own cheerleader and advocate for yourself.

She encourages women to be allies with each other in the world of work because “there is strength in unity, and together we can make a difference in society.”

She continued: “Always support each other on your path to success and do not bring each other down. We should empower ourselves and the women around us to succeed and excel in every aspect of their lives. Remember where there is a will, there is a way – so get ready to break the glass ceiling!”

Rapid fire questions

  1. If you were not in the pharmacy business, where would you be?

A – I would be an Ayurvedic practitioner or in academia.

  1. What do you like to do in your free time?

A – I like to spend my precious time with my family and friends. Additionally, I enjoy activities such as reading, traveling, walking, writing, and participating in Zumba.  

  1. How do you balance your professional & personal life so well?

A – Self-love and self-care are so important and must be prioritised always to be your best self in your personal as well as professional life.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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