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A male chauvinist (reformed) and women pharmacists

As Women’s History Month comes to an end, Dr Malcolm E. Brown discusses some of the complexities women can face in pharmacy

I was part of a team of senior managers in a District General Hospital in the early 1980s. We were summoned to a compulsory training meeting. We noticed that the (few) women senior managers were absent.

We wondered, “Why?”

The trainer, probably in her twenties, was female.

“You are here today to be taught how to behave with women”, she said. “You see, you are all male chauvinist pigs. Don't worry. It's not your fault. It’s how you have been brought up. But you must be retrained and I will now do so.”

The subsequent vigorous all-male discussion in the canteen included some chortling. My account may be dismissed as merely anecdotal but I report as accurately as time and memory will permit.

 But here's the thing: from the viewpoint of British woke culture in 2024, she was right.


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If the participants in the “Big Debate” on the 21st of March are representative of male community pharmacists, the belief that male and female pharmacists are of equal value, for the same work and so deserve the same pay, was universal. I suspect that many male Britons of my vintage had analogous experiences. If so, today’s women pharmacists owe an immense debt to their Feminist sister activists around the 1980s.

It bears mention that such revolutions have not occurred in much of the world, notably China, India, Nigeria and Pakistan.

There was also much concern about the challenges to women pharmacists involved in child care, specifically, how to juggle those responsibilities with the working pattern generally demanded within community pharmacies.

Arguably, if women choose not to work full time, such as taking maternity leave (a legal entitlement) or reducing their hours for child care while the men do not, like is not being compared with like. Then, men deserve more money.


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Where the woman lives with a man partner such as in marriage, logically, the partner who earns less should stay at home and concentrate on nurturing the children. So, to Homo economicus, If the man earns less, staying at home as a “househusband” is a no-brainer. But real-world relationships are more complex; behaviour must be negotiated between the two parties. For a single mother, the situation is even more challenging.

The dilemma is that, at some stage, a woman has to choose between either having a full-time career and competing with men on equal terms or taking time out for childcare. But a woman’s fertility drastically reduces after about 37 years; assisted conception and/or freezing eggs may mitigate. However, successful childbirth when older, after she has progressed further in her career, is uncertain.


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One way of escaping between the horns of that dilemma is suggested by the school teacher fellow at the University of Manchester and Bolton School, Kirsty Turner. Superstars are seldom professionals such as chemists or pharmacists; most of them are content with a career that just gives a decent salary, enough money to build a life, buy a house, start a family and so on—a “nice life”; they may also do other satisfying things outside their discipline. Rona Robinson, for example, the first woman to graduate with a first-class degree in chemistry in the UK, was also a suffragette.

I find it difficult to imagine, in these normal (hopefully peaceful) times, anything more important than devoting time to nurturing a child until, say, starting school. It is the most immense privilege that being human offers. This could be a man or a woman but only women can labour and give birth.  Men are generally happy to delegate that to women (hint for men: the clue is in the name: labour). Men and women can bottle-feed milk. However, only women can suckle; their milk supplies antibodies for the child and deep-seated, lifelong, Freudian socio-emotional and other benefits.

Some Western women today want to “have it all”: to have a glittering career to the pinnacle of their discipline and have children. It can, and is, done by some individuals but it poses immense challenges. Assistance (to men and women) may include trade unionism. Note that, for GPs (male and female), part-time work is commonplace.


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Today, women pharmacists have a cornucopia of role models. The chief executive officer of the NHS, the president, chief and deputy chief scientists of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society (RPS), and the chair of the General Pharmaceutical Council (GPhC) are women.

My favourite role model is Dorothy Hodgkin (1910-94). I was privileged to meet her in 1981. She was only one of two girls who were permitted to study Chemistry advanced level in the Sir John Lemon Grammar (now Comprehensive) School in Beccles, Suffolk. She went on to become a Nobel Laureate in Chemistry in 1964 and have three children.

So, men and women in pharmacy need each other, just as the “best” choirs have male and female voices.

But this discussion has a flavour of The Sex Wars of Lysistrata withholding her services in Ancient Greece to Shakespeare's “The Taming of the Screw”. But it was around 1992 that Leonard Cohen, my favourite poet, nailed it with,

"From the homicidal bitchin'

That goes down in every kitchen

To determine who will serve and who will eat”.

Fortunately, some fraternisation with the enemy occurs. Otherwise, the human race would disappear. The replacement births required per woman are 2.1. Presently in South Korea, for example, it is 0.7. That statistic, if repeated worldwide, might suggest a descent into dystopia such as in Margaret Atwood's “The Handmaid's Tale”.

Settlement of The Sex Wars is way above my pay grade!


Dr Malcolm E. Brown is a retired community, hospital and industrial pharmacist, and is a sociologist and honorary careers mentor at the University of East Anglia.

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