Royal Pharmaceutical Society

"You don't look like a pharmacy student"

by Viv Ryan, MPharm student

Would you be surprised to find yourself working with an MPharm student in their sixties? I am a 60 year-old pharmacy student and incredibly proud to be one.

The RPS strategy suggests there is considerable value to our profession in progressing further with inclusion and diversity, and my own experience suggests this is a timely intervention.  We all have our unique value to offer in the workplace.

In 2016, armed with sufficient retirement funding, experience and enthusiasm to realise a long-held dream of owning and running a community pharmacy, I embarked on a new career. At 56, I found myself on the cusp of a wonderful adventure.

From a very early age, I had wanted to be a pharmacist. Unfortunately, girls of working-class families like my own were not permitted to even enter science laboratories at school but were, instead, taught domestic science (cookery and housekeeping), thus helping them to attain the dream of becoming expert housewives.

‘Difference’, for me, is something to be embraced. I began my working life in the 1990s maintaining the gas boilers in a pharmaceutical manufacturing plant. I was the first female engineer in a plant where women were paid weekly and men monthly, to stop us ‘frittering’ the money away if we were given it all in one go. Parking was men only, as women were usually dropped off by husbands. In early September we were told: “the weather is now turning cold and female staff will wear tights as no one wants to see white mottled legs in the workplace.”

Diversity and inclusion were not high on the workplace agenda back then.

In 2002 I became an accountant finally holding a senior position with a global pharmaceutical company, until my retirement; I felt well placed for a new career.

The first step was to secure a place to study for my MPharm.

My O Levels weren’t recognised.  Fortunately, Westminster College in London allowed me to enrol on their Access to Pharmacy course and in parallel to sign up for GCSE Maths. A year later, having passed the entrance tests, I was interviewed for my degree place and viewed with distinct curiosity. One university told me  “we don’t think that we are the best place for you but we admire you for taking five years out of your life to study when none of us knows what time we have left.”

Fortunately, I secured a place at Reading University and was fully accepted as Viv Ryan MPharm Student.  My experience, age, gender and ethnic group were of no concern during my application process, and discrimination was not tolerated.  Some students still do a double-take, but my own year intake don’t seem to notice at all.

By far the biggest hurdle was obtaining the necessary community pharmacy work experience and here I hit the barriers of our profession.  I applied for over 20 places, without success.  In the main, the inability to secure a place was a capacity issue; too many students and not enough places. However, was there an issue for prospective employers seeing beyond what I was to see who I was? On more than one occasion I was told, ‘we reserve our places for local young students who may want to work here when they qualify, we don’t have roles that would suit you’, or “the younger staff might find it awkward” or even “Really, how funny!”. But it was “You don’t look like a student” which inspired me to write this blog.

Then COVID19 came along and I volunteered under the Government scheme to local pharmacies. The scheme does not ask age, simply experience, and assigns you to pharmacies that may need help.  In some weeks I secured more than 40 hours experience and in one week almost 60 hours. Once the staff got over my age and knew me as a person, the age issue disappeared; customers are happy to see an experienced face and because the pharmacy is in my community, I am a familiar face too.  My children have all had head lice, impetigo, and Lego bricks up the nose, so nothing fazes me. I drive, clean, dispense, fill shelves and am quite an expert at ordering.   I have now been offered an ongoing volunteer place and am ecstatic.

I look forward to my days, offering the experience I have and gaining that which I don’t.  Most of all ‘I bring my whole self to work’: I am who I am and make no apologies for being a 60-year-old student who still wants to learn and grow.  Everyone I meet brings a new experience and new learning opportunity.

Discrimination is defined in the Oxford dictionary as “the intolerance of Protected Characteristics like age, race or sex”. Inclusion is the ability to see value in everyone and let them in for who they are.  As pharmacists, discrimination must have no place in our profession, and increasing inclusion can only bring added value to us and to those we serve.  There is no downside to inclusion.

We want to encourage voices that express the diversity of lived experiences in the profession as part of our inclusion and diversity work. If you’d like to share your story, contact [email protected] or get involved through our ABCD group.


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