Female Leadership, Empowerment, and Self-Advocating Key to Overcoming Gender Inequities in Health Care

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The vice president and chief pharmacy officer of City of Hope discusses obstacles women face in health care and how diversity, equity, and inclusion can be promoted within the space.

To celebrate International Women’s Day, Pharmacy Times interviewed Wafa Samara, PharmD, vice president and chief pharmacy officer at City of Hope, who expressed the challenges that women face within health care industries and potential strategies to overcome them. Speaking from personal experience, Samara stresses the importance of self-advocating, being confident, and celebrating one’s achievements. She also discusses how City of Hope exemplifies diversity, equity, and inclusion through their associates, research, training programs, and engagement with patient populations.

Key Takeaways:

  1. Gender Equity in Health Care Leadership: Wafa Samara emphasizes the importance of addressing gender inequity in health care—notably in leadership positions—and highlights the need for policies that promote diversity, equity, and inclusion for women. She highlights that City of Hope stands out for its commitment to reducing gender inequity and fostering an inclusive workplace environment for their associates.
  2. Advocating for the Individual and Women: Samara encourages women to advocate for themselves assertively and not “playing nice”, emphasizing the importance of confidence and celebrating one’s individual achievements. She stresses the significance of creating a culture where women's voices are heard, celebrated, and respected, both within organizations and in the broader health care landscape.
  3. Promoting Diversity and Inclusivity in Pharmacy: Samara discusses the evolving landscape of diversity and inclusivity in the pharmaceutical industry, calling for more women in leadership roles and the inclusion of women in clinical trials and research. She notes that City of Hope exemplifies this commitment through initiatives like recruiting and training programs that specifically aim to increase diversity in health care professions. Having a diverse workforce promotes engagement with patient populations, because patients receiving care will be able to see themselves in these positions and feel heard by professionals.

Pharmacy Times: Can you introduce yourself?

Wafa Samara: My name is Wafa Samara, I'm the vice president and chief pharmacy officer at City of Hope. For those who don't know City of Hope, [we are] the largest cancer research and treatment organization in the US.

Pharmacy Times: In your experience as a leader in pharmacy, what are some challenges women face in health care industries? How have you navigated and overcome these challenges in your career?

Samara: We know that women are the primary consumers in health care and the primary decision-makers in health care, they probably account for about 50% of the workforce in health care. But women have a lot of challenges speaking from personal experience. I think when we talk about challenges for women, we talk about gender inequity, that [is likely] the first thing that comes to mind. When we talk about gender inequity in health care, how we measure that, and what that means for women, we probably see how health care stacks up to other industries, look at women's experience in the industry, look at the policies that exist in the industry that promote gender inequity, and then look at the things that those organizations or health systems are doing to make sure that all the policies that they have in place are promoting diversity, equity and inclusion for women in health care. So, I think the challenges are making sure that we close the gap in that gender inequity for women.

A lot is happening at City of Hope—I'm so proud of working at our organization—[we] are a health system that does promote closing the gap and reducing gender inequity, if you look at our top leaders within the organization and the things that we do to reduce gender inequity and eliminate it.

Then if we talk about anything else outside gender inequity, we talk about are things that were highlighted during COVID [such as] burnout, well-being…I think women face that more [and] in more ways than men because we try to balance life inside our work—work life balance, I guess. So, I would say those are the 2 things that come to mind if I think about the challenges that I faced as pharmacy and a health system leader.

Pharmacy Times: In what ways can women advocate for themselves and others in order to promote equity and inclusion within the profession?

Samara: You know, if I think about myself—of course, I'm a woman of a minority background—I was told [and] I was brought up to always play nice, be humble, let my achievements work for themselves, and to not celebrate [or] speak about myself. And I think when we think about that—just in general—in leadership, that's not good enough. You can't play nice and you can't let your achievement play for yourself. You need to be confident, you need to advocate for yourself, and you need to make sure that you have a voice at the table. So, women, we need to be bold—and I know my mom always told me I got to be humble, but being bold is not being not humble. We need to know our worth, we need to advocate for ourselves, we need to be assertive, we need to be more specific, and we need to be viewed as respected more than liked. I think that is very important, and what I've learned too is we need to celebrate ourselves and the women around us. So, we need to take the time—not to brag about what we do, but…we need celebrate all the things that women do [in the industry].

City of Hope is a very inclusive workplace where women are celebrated and women have high positions, high roles in the organization and they’re decision-makers. There are a lot of activities at City of Hope that will make sure that women's voices are heard. We celebrate diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) [by celebrating] our women, our minority women because we want to make sure our staff is all inclusive, and when our staff is all inclusive, our leadership is all inclusive, [so that] the care that we provide to our community—[which] is diverse community and patient population—mirrors the diversity that we experience, preach, and [how] we show up…it's very, very, very important that we create a diversity within the teams, the leadership team, and the frontline team, so we can serve the diverse populations that we treat every day.

Pharmacy Times: How do you see the pharmaceutical industry evolving in terms of diversity and inclusivity, and what are some actionable steps that could be made?

Samara: So, there was a World Economic Forum that just concluded a couple of months ago, and it was telling when [they] publish their report and they say from the boardroom to the counseling room, [that] we need to have more women in pharma, and that is—really in a nutshell—what we need: we need to make sure that pharma has more women sitting at the leadership level, making decisions on the directions for the organizations that they oversee. We know that more and more women are taking active roles in those pharma positions within those industries, but…probably less than 30% of the pharma is led by women. And we know women, again, we’re the highest consumers, women in third world countries are patients who don't have the same access to health care that we do in [other] countries.

So, if we think about pharma and what [we can] do…again, more women in leadership positions, more gender equity, and appropriate research. When we talk about doing research [within] pharma, [we need to] make sure that we have enough women enrolled in that research, because any innovative new cancer treatment, or new disease treatment, we need to make sure [the female population] is taken into consideration [because they are a] population that they're going to be treating. Enrollment in clinical trials is very important, making sure that we have enough women enrolled in clinical trials and women from all walks of life, all ethnic backgrounds, [that] is very important.

And I think that is a very big step [and] City for Hope [has] done this on an organization level…We've done a lot of work, improving and encouraging DEI, encouraging enrollment in our clinical trials, making sure that we encourage the advancement of training and training programs [to cover] diverse populations. I know in the pharmacy, 1 of the programs that we're so proud of—I know it's not related to pharma, but we do feed into pharma—pharma recruits some of our highly-trained pharmacists and what we've done [within our organization], we partnered with universities that have minorities—especially [African American populations]—and we've established training programs where we recruit women who did not think of City of Hope as a place to work or [the] cancer [space] as a place that they would like to venture and have a career in. And those pharmacists…[they] come spend some time with us every summer, they come to learn about the uniqueness of City of Hope [and our open culture], the inclusivity, the kind of patient population—all-inclusive and diverse—that we serve. And they go back to their colleges and they get excited about getting a job [here] and they get excited about their role in health care…and creating a culture where…women can be there advocating for their patients and working with [them] on a personal level, connecting with them culturally, and connecting and engaging them to so they can achieve the benefit of innovation in health care.

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