Glass Structures That Inhibit Gender-Balanced Leadership in Pharmacy Academia

By:  Jaclyn Boyle, PharmD, MS, MBA, BCACP, BCPS and Abagail Agler, PharmD, BCPS

Academic pharmacy has not yet achieved gender equity. Pharmacy faculty predominantly identify as female with women currently representing 59% of assistant professors, 53% of associate professors, but only 37% of full professors, demonstrating unbalanced representation at higher levels of promotion.1 Obstacles to gender-balanced leadership in pharmacy remain, including: individual and organizational barriers, gender bias, microaggressions and the persistence of gender stereotypes. Examples include having work contributions ignored, producing more evidence of competence, or being mistaken for someone else. Unfortunately, data related to these obstacles within pharmacy and specifically within academia does not currently exist.

What are some proposed reasons for these incongruencies? 

While many theories exist, we hope to highlight the trifecta of glass barriers that can hinder gender equity in many organizations.

Glass Ceiling

The ‘Glass Ceiling’ is an invisible barrier that prevents women and minorities from obtaining upper level administration roles.2 Women and minorities are encouraged to ‘break the glass ceiling’ to make progress in representation, but then may find themselves as an ‘only’ person of representation in their demographic category2.  Once the glass-ceiling is broken, they may encounter new barriers. Many female faculty may not be provided with the opportunity to advance or may choose to delay promotion due to work-life balance. 

Glass Cliff

The Glass Cliff describes the concept that women and minorities are more often appointed to precarious positions, as they are assumed to be able to nurture organizations back to health during crises.3 It is assumed that they cannot see the ominous edge of the proverbial “cliff”, inadvertently placing their careers in danger by accepting these roles. For example, a woman may be more likely to be selected for an academic leadership position when a school is struggling with accreditation issues or during turbulent times where transformational leadership is required.

Glass Escalator

Literature has also demonstrated that men are more likely to be fast-tracked to administrative roles, riding a proverbial ‘Glass Escalator.’4 Despite the fact that pursuing higher level positions may not align with their career goals, they are put on an upward moving escalator as administrative roles are deemed to be more ‘legitimate’ careers for men. In pharmacy, female representation trails off at higher administrative roles in academia. Women represent 64% of assistant deans, 49% of associate deans, yet only 26% of deans are women.1 In the last decade, representation of women as deans has remained between 23-26% and lags behind other demographics, potentially confirming the glass escalator theory.1

Chisholm-Burns, et al, describe several other barriers to administrative roles that women face, including: 

  • Conscious and unconscious bias
  • Lack of ‘leadership pursuit mentality’
  • Lack of sponsors, mentors, and role models
  • Lack of support for work-life balance/integration
  • Lack of network, recognition, visibility, resources, and opportunities and 
  • The phenomenon of ‘leaning out’ of their career.

By recognizing these barriers, mentors and managers can identify and address obstacles preventing gender-inequity. 

Why does this matter and what can be done? 

Without careful attention to these glass barriers, gender-balanced leadership may never be a reality in pharmacy education. It is well documented that gender-balanced organizations have improved outcomes and employee engagement. The 2019 CEO Circle White Paper published by the Foundation of the American College of Healthcare Executives offers insight into ways that healthcare organizations can address gender inequity, including: 

  • Fair and equitable recruitment processes by establishing diversity goals
  • Establishing career and leadership development programs
  • Preferentially filling open positions with internal candidates
  • Formalizing mentoring programs and evaluating leaders on mentorship skills
  • Implementing a zero tolerance policy for sexual harassment
  • Ensuring women are sought out on key committees and projects to increase visibility 
  • Tying business goals to diversity objectives 
  • Implementing flexible work policies and programs that support work/life balance

If pharmacy education hopes to follow suit in achieving gender equity, colleges and schools should consider conducting a Needs Assessment to evaluate recruitment, advancement, strategy/policy, flexibility, and support of work/life balance. However, most validated Needs Assessment tools are focused on non-academic institutions policies, practices, and resources supporting equal opportunities and unbiased approaches. The Academy may look to develop an additional tool specific to pharmacy education. Additionally, the Academy may benefit from discussions of how academic pharmacy can combat the aforementioned glass barriers to aim towards gender-balanced leadership. Ideas could include: educational sessions, research papers, or assigning a group of individuals within AACP (perhaps as a subset of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion [DEI] efforts) to generate recommendations aimed at gender-balanced leadership. While DEI and implicit bias training have made some headway, impact and validity of these training outside of student didactic education is limited.

Fostering and sponsoring women in their career advancement is imperative for colleges and schools to consider as gender-balanced organizations have demonstrable benefits to the organization and society as a whole. 

How does your institution support gender-balanced leadership? 


  1. American Association of Colleges of Pharmacy. 2020-2021 Profile of Pharmacy Faculty. 2021. 
  2. Women in the Workplace. 2018. 
  3. Ryan MK, Haslam SA. The Glass Cliff: Evidence that Women are Over-Represented in Precarious Leadership Positions. British Journal of Management 2005;16:81-90.
  4. Williams CL. The Glass Escalator: Hidden Advantages for Men in the ‘Female’ Professions. Social Problems. 1992;39(3):253-267.
  5. Chisholm-Burns MA, Spivey CA, Hagemann T, Josephson MA. Women in Leadership and the bewildering glass ceiling. Am J Health-Syst Pharm. 2017;74(5):321-324.

Author bios: 

Jaclyn Boyle, PharmD, MS, MBA, BCACP, is the Assistant Dean of Student Success and an Associate Professor of Pharmacy Practice at the Northeast Ohio Medical University College of Pharmacy. Her educational interests include professional development, student affairs, and leadership. Jaclyn is very active in professional organizations. In her free time, she enjoys spending time with her family and friends, spinning, and yoga.


Abagail Agler, PharmD, BCPS is a clinical pharmacy specialist in internal medicine at University Hospitals Geauga Medical Center in Cleveland, Ohio where she currently serves as the PGY-1 Residency Program Director. She is an Assistant Professor of Pharmacy Practice for Northeast Ohio Medical University (NEOMED) College of Pharmacy in Rootstown, Ohio. At NEOMED, she currently teaches various pharmacotherapy topics and is a course director for Interprofessional Education.

Pulses is a scholarly blog supported by Currents in Pharmacy Teaching and Learning

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