By Rob L. Wagner
18 December 2016
Jeddah – In a significant move that promises to level the playing field for women in the pharmaceutical industry, Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Health has agreed to issue licences for women to work in pharmacies and herbal medicine facilities.
The decision is a boon for female pharmacists looking for employment in a sector that has been unavailable to them for decades. Pharmaceutical jobs remain available for women in the government sector but their exclusion from private employment limits choices of where to work.
The Ministry of Health reported in 2015 that the kingdom, which has a population of 28.8 million, has about 7,000 privately owned pharmacies, twice the number of the global average in which one pharmacy serves an average of 8,000 potential customers.
The proliferation of private pharmacies stems in part from the Health Ministry eliminating a requirement that pharmacies must be at least 250 metres apart.
A majority of the kingdom’s pharmacies employ Arab expatriates as workers but the government’s Vision 2030 aims to extend job opportunities not only to Saudi citizens in general, but specifically women. The Jeddah Chamber of Commerce and Industry reported that 500 female pharmaceutical students graduated from just one university this year and need jobs.
Ghadi Ghulam, a pharmacist working in a government pharmacy in Jeddah, said she welcomed the advantages jobs in the private sector would offer women.
“It will provide good opportunities for women in general but, in our culture, we must go slow to get people used to the idea,” she said.
The average salary of a pharmacist in the private sector is about $20,000 annually, although pharmacists with more than 20 years’ experience can earn as much as $64,000 per year, according to PaySale, which collects data on salaries for virtually every profession around the world.
Only about one-quarter of the government-run pharmacies are staffed by women but some private companies are working to boost the number of women working in the profession.
Ahmed S. Dahduli, communications director for AbbVie Biopharmaceuticals, which has offices in Jeddah and Riyadh, said interest among women pharmacists in the private sector is growing. The Chicago-based AbbVie provides training programmes for student pharmacists in Saudi Arabia and other countries.
“The female Saudi pharmacist talent pool is significantly large,” Dahduli said. “When students started the programme with us, only 33% of them expressed interest in considering working in the private sector. At the end of the programme, after witnessing the opportunities and career development plans, more than 75% of them are considering working with the private sector after graduation.”
The AbbVie training programme provides Saudi university students a look at the practicalities and career possibilities of a pharmacist. The company offers daily summer courses that focus on supply chain management, government and regulatory requirements and quality assurance among other topics.
Dahduli said Vision 2030 “has placed a significant amount of focus on Saudi human talent”.
“Given the number of pharmacy college graduates and the demand for professionals in the pharmaceutical industry in the kingdom, the intent of our programme is to help provide female candidates with the skills that can help them compete for available positions within this important sector,” he said.
Dahduli said there is a great demand for Saudi women pharmacists. Ghulam agreed, noting that although the percentage of women working in government pharmacies is low, employment in the field — whether in the government or private sector — is available.
“Women would be more than happy to work in either the government or private sector,” she said.
Employment at private pharmacies is not just limited to pharmacists but also to support personnel. Many pharmacies, particularly in shopping malls, count most of their sales in cosmetics with about 30% of sales in medicinal products and prescriptions. Pharmacists say female customers prefer speaking with another woman when discussing details of their prescriptions.
Other medical-related professions are also expected to open more job opportunities to women, including ophthalmology. For example, 60 of the 68 recent graduating ophthalmologists at King Saud University were women. This year, an estimated 13,000 women were certified ophthalmologists although jobs in the private sector do not exist for them.