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Student Pharmacist Sheds Light on Leadership Gender Disparity

Aug 24, 2017

Editor’s Note: This story is part of a special series examining the growing number of women in pharmacy leadership.

Sharon Karina, Pharm.D. Candidate (2018)

AS A THIRD-YEAR STUDENT PHARMACIST at Midwestern University in Chicago, Sharon Karina observed that it was rare to find women in pharmacy leadership roles. When she learned through a leadership program offered by her school that a female pharmacy leader named Desi Kotis, Pharm.D., FASHP, was willing to speak with her, she jumped at the opportunity.

“I wanted to meet with leaders in various areas of pharmacy to better understand their challenges and passions,” Karina said. “I’m a naturally curious person; I have a unique drive to ferret out areas for improvement and find solutions.”

Karina learned from Dr. Kotis that there is a current challenge in the profession of pharmacy — gender disparity in leadership. Karina had already noticed that mostly men attended pharmacy networking events, so Dr. Kotis’ revelation didn’t come as a complete surprise. “But I didn’t realize what a significant issue it was until meeting Desi,” she said.

Gender Disparity Research

Dr. Kotis is the Director of Pharmacy at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago, an active ASHP volunteer, and a member of ASHP’s Women in Pharmacy Leadership Steering Committee. She invited Karina to research the topic of gender disparity with her over the summer of 2016. Dr. Kotis served as Karina’s mentor and sponsor. “She wanted a student perspective on the leadership gap; I was happy to provide it,” Karina explained.

After researching Midwestern University’s reports for incoming class statistics from 2014, 2015, and 2016, Karina learned that each year more women are entering the pharmacy profession. “According to reports from the Accreditation Council for Pharmacy Education, my graduating class [2018] as well as all incoming classes of 2018 students consist of more than 60% women, a climb from previous years,” she said.

This got Karina thinking. Although the profession is trending upward with female-to-male ratios, leadership positions are still held primarily by men. “As a highly pragmatic problem-solver, my next step was to think about where the pharmacy profession is failing with leadership development,” Karina said.

Karina with her mentor, Desi Kotis, Pharm.D., FASHP, Director of Pharmacy at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago.

Dr. Kotis and Karina’s research included literature reviews and first-person perspectives from webinars posted on ASHP’s website, articles from the Harvard Business Review, and casual conversations with student pharmacists and pharmacists in numerous practice areas and specialties.

Karina and Dr. Kotis learned that some women might find leadership undesirable because they are more interested in work-life balance. “But through networking, and by hearing people’s stories and experiences, women can find solutions on how to integrate their work and professional responsibilities with their personal lives,” Karina said. “I think a woman can still be a leader and also be a wife, mother, caretaker, coach, and so forth. There seems to be a notion that you need to choose one or the other, but women can do them both.”

Another reason why women may not pursue leadership roles is a lack of confidence. “They may think they don’t have sufficient expertise and may not be self-promoters,” she said.

The duo also evaluated a 2011 survey conducted by Zenger Folkman. The survey of more than 7,000 executive corporate leaders ranked women as better leaders than men in a variety of leadership competencies, including taking initiative, practicing self-development, and driving results. Reflecting on her research, Karina noted that women make good leaders because of their soft skills, such as emotional intelligence, and their ability to be relationship-builders.

Karina and Dr. Kotis presented their research at a panel discussion at the Illinois Council of Health-System Pharmacists (ICHP) in September 2016. “The ICHP meeting attendees felt that the topic was very important, and that we should continue to offer programming and networking geared toward women in pharmacy,” Karina said.

A Student with a Cause

The topic of gender disparity in pharmacy leadership remains near and dear to Karina. “The pharmacy industry, and healthcare in general, has a large pool of female talent that we should be capitalizing on,” she said. “We need to have more open discussions about why this is the case and start instituting plans of action to change it.” In particular, she’d like to identify the strategic and financial implications of continuing in this direction and what weaknesses in the system exist so they can be corrected.

Regarding how to get more women into leadership positions, Karina believes pharmacy student curriculum should include a focus on leadership development, regardless of a student’s chosen direction. “I say this because all pharmacists are leaders in one way or another,” she said. For example, beginning as early as when she was first accepted into pharmacy school, Karina’s friends and family members started asking her medication-related questions. “When you’re viewed as an expert, you have to be cognizant about your power,” she explained.

Although fewer women have pharmacy leadership roles, many are taking on positions in managing personnel and running hospital systems and other organizations. “It seems negligent for female pharmacy students to not invest in ourselves in developing and upholding our leadership qualities,” Karina said.

Leadership Today and Tomorrow

Karina has already embraced multiple leadership roles as a pharmacy student. At Midwestern, she volunteers at the school’s annual community health fair. “It enables students to have one-on-one outreach to the community,” she said. “This helps us to identify what issues exist there. It’s also important for community members to see pharmacists’ value.”

Karina practices blood pressure techniques at the Clinical Skills and Simulation Center at Midwestern University with Ozioma Odili and Patsy Berko, who are both Pharm.D. Candidates (2018).

Karina also volunteers during her school’s new-student orientation. “New students are excited about beginning their careers. I want to give them the best advice possible to succeed, because it is very challenging,” she said.

Karina is passionate about heart disease prevention and management, and volunteers as a member of the American Heart Association (AHA) of Chicago’s Young Professionals Board. “Currently, I am looking at ways to fund-raise, and I’m interested in advocacy,” she said. “I want to build a relationship between pharmacy students and the AHA. Pharmacy students have many opportunities for community outreach, whether it’s conducting blood pressure screenings, testing blood glucose, or trying to help the community understand the importance of taking care of their health.”

Karina hasn’t nailed down what her future role in pharmacy will be, but ideally it will enable her to connect with people. “Whenever I meet people, I try to find out what they’ve accomplished and what areas in pharmacy and healthcare can be improved,” Karina said. “Then, I consider what my role might be.”

But Karina does foresee herself becoming a pharmacy leader, because she appreciates opportunities to learn from others. “My ideal role is to collaborate with people inside and outside of healthcare to pragmatically solve problems and share ideas,” she said.

As a proven student leader, Karina’s future as a trailblazer in the pharmacy profession certainly looks bright.

By Karen Appold


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