Excerpted from page 24 of the March 2019 edition of AOA Focus.
In the 2017-18 academic year, there were 4,830 females and 2,294 males enrolled as full-time doctor of optometry students at U.S. schools and colleges of optometry, including Puerto Rico, according to the Association of Schools and Colleges of Optometry (ASCO). In fact, ASCO data show, female optometry students have outnumbered males for at least the past decade.
Although men still outnumber women as practicing doctors of optometry, the ranks of women are growing. In 2016, the most recent year data was available, female doctors accounted for 43% of practicing doctors of optometry, up from about 29% in 2009, according to the AOA's Survey of Optometric Practice. And many more women doctors owned practices in 2016 (39.1%) than in 2009 (20.5%).
Among those leading this female front are the four women serving today on the 11-person AOA Board of Trustees, including as president-elect.
The numbers are clear. In optometry, the future is female.
So what does this wave of women mean for optometry? How has the profession evolved, and what does the future hold for women in optometry? To find out, AOA Focus interviewed more than a dozen female doctors, paraoptometrics and optometry students.
What does it mean to be a woman in optometry today?
Lori L. Grover, O.D., Ph.D., AOA trustee: To me, it means being one of a growing number of women who can shape the face of eye and health care, and lead to improve the health of the nation. The demographics of women in optometry affords us the potential to truly effect change.
Suzanne Johannes, optometry student: It means you have faced the challenges of the profession and professional school with a different perspective than a woman who graduated 50 years ago. To be a woman in optometry today is to learn from the women who have paved the way, as well as paving the way for future optometrists.
Jacqueline M. Bowen, O.D., AOA trustee: We now have a responsibility to engage and take care of the profession. Leadership at all levels of organized optometry, legislative advocacy and running the business of practice have traditionally been roles for men, but the tide is changing. Let me be clear, I do know many strong women who have stepped up to fill those roles, and we need to advance that trend. As more women choose optometry, more women need to choose to move it forward.
Jasmeen Bhangu, optometry student and first recipient of the AOA Contact Lens & Cornea Section's Student Honorable Distinction Award: Women across the board are embracing taking center stage and speaking up about the things that matter most, and this is no different in optometry. Being a woman in optometry today means we have made some of the social progress necessary for a productive and just society.
How has optometry evolved during your time in the profession, particularly with regard to being a women in optometry?
Jacqueline Davis, O.D., past AOA Educator of the Year recipient: There were only seven females in my graduating class back in 1981. I believe that the prevailing opinion of most male doctors at that time was that women entering the field would ruin the profession because women were not going to practice in full-time capacities. That theory could not have been further from the truth. I took off three weeks for the births of each of my two sons, and those were the two longest lapses in time that I have been away from this profession over the past 37 years. Our profession is stronger, more enriched and more directed, I believe, because of the input of people from all genders, ethnicities and viewpoints.
Carol Lovell, CPOT, CPOC, AOA's 2018 Paraoptometric of the Year: When I first started working in the field, there was no distinction. You were a receptionist or a frame stylist, doctor assistant. Today, you are recognized for being part of the entire office, a paraoptometric, Certified Paraoptometric, Certified Paraoptometric Assistant, Certified Paraoptometric Technician and a Certified Paraoptometric Coder.
Dori M. Carlson, O.D., past AOA president (and first female AOA president): When I first started going to meetings representing the profession, there were very few female doctors in the room. I remember standing at the back of a room and counting on one hand the number of women in a room of a few hundred. That just isn't the case today.
What challenges have you faced as a woman in optometry?
Annabelle Storch, American Optometric Student Association president: I have been fortunate to face few challenges as a woman in optometry. I have felt respected and that my opinion and ideas matter and are worthwhile. There is the occasional patient who may question me serving as his or her doctor, but I think that sentiment is compounded by age.
Dr. Davis: When I had my private practice, I also worked one day a week in a general ophthalmology practice. I once had a patient in that practice who refused to be seen by me because I was a black female. The ophthalmologist told the patient that I was the only person in the practice who was capable of providing the care that he needed. He then gave the patient the options of having me examine him or going elsewhere for further care. Given those options, the patient acquiesced, and I provided him vision care for many years.
Kris Van Sickle, CPOT: As a paraoptometric in a small town, I find the biggest challenge is trying to get my patients to see me as more than the 'girl behind the desk.' ... As a woman, I feel that we have to always prove that we know what we are doing. I am working in an office that has new owners this past year. We now have a male doctor and a female doctor. Patients will call the male doctor by 'doctor' and the female doctor is called by her first name. I also have patients who will only be seen by the male doctor.
Dr. Carlson: Initially, it was difficult to be a practice owner in a male-dominated business world. I remember bankers and accountants who wanted to speak to my husband instead of me. My husband was great, though, and supported my voice and the need for others to respect me. I now seldom run into that problem.
Dr. Grover: One of the biggest challenges I've faced—and that still remains for women—is being taken as seriously and provided mentorship and sponsorship similarly as our male counterparts. There are many layers we have to face. Aside from the ongoing battle for physician parity as a doctor of optometry in the health care arena, and personal issues, like not giving in to 'imposter syndrome,' there are persistent systemic issues such as patients and other professionals assuming a female is a nurse and not the doctor. There have been other subtle, but nonetheless impactful, situations throughout my career occurring at decision-making tables—the repackaging of my ideas by someone else as their own; instances of 'mansplaining'; dealing with male-only panels in policy, legislative, administrative, educational and clinical situations where the inclusion of women was not considered; and negotiating issues of pay equity and blatant sexist salary assumptions.
What advice would you give to your female colleagues?
Barbara L. Horn, O.D., AOA president-elect: Volunteer as much as you can. If there's an area of practice you enjoy and you're passionate about, get involved. You get a whole lot more out of it than what you put in when you're sharing your expertise and you're meeting people with the same passion. I definitely encourage other women to try to engage and inspire new graduates and students, our future leaders.
Andrea P. Thau, O.D., past AOA president: The most valuable asset you have is your good name. It is your brand and your reputation. You should be very sensitive about how you're perceived by others because you can never take off your doctor hat. No matter where you are, you're a doctor of optometry.
Dorothy Hitchmoth, O.D., past AOA Advocate of the Year recipient: I recommend that young doctors join their local, state and national organizations. You will find some amazing friends, colleagues and mentors. I discourage newly minted doctors from practicing on their own in settings where they become isolated from clinical, academic or business mentors. It is important that you continue to seek good counsel early in your career and not drive into the Wild West without a horse or water. Find more than one mentor, and choose wisely. I advise female colleagues similarly, but I would add that you need different mentors at different points in your career. Discussing maternity leave, breastfeeding schedules, timing for opening a business, or taking time off to care for an elderly parent or sick child are not issues shared by everyone. Find someone that has had shared experiences and ask them for advice.
Lovell: Look at your job in an optometry office as a career, not just a job. If you look at it as a career, you will be amazed at what you will learn and what you can and will do. Take the time to become certified. The pride you feel in obtaining the certification is one thing, but the respect you receive from your co-workers, your employer and the patients you care for is fulfilling.
What are your goals for the profession in the future?
Erlinda Rodriguez, CPO, chair of AOA's Paraoptometric Resource Center Committee: To distinguish itself as the top primary eye care profession; to continue expanding its scope of practice to better serve the eye care needs of the population; to encourage growth and value the contributions made by all members of the optometric family; to maintain its inclusiveness and diversity, which best represents all those we serve.
Dr. Horn: I want full scope of care. I want optometry to decide what optometry can do and perform. I think we need to be increasing our medical care, and increased care will be needed as the population ages. I also see a stronger association as far as increased membership and increased involvement within the states and local societies. One of my biggest goals for this upcoming year is working with local societies through our state affiliates, but also working with faculty to make sure they're helping us educate students about the importance of what we're doing.
Dr. Bowen: More than anything, I'd like to see colleagues providing advanced, leading-edge primary care that fully reflects both our education and training and our essential and expanding role in the health care system. To make this a reality, the AOA, in partnership with state associations, is boldly shaping the future practice of optometry by working to fix outdated state laws and obliterate unfair or arbitrary barriers to the eye health care our patients need.
Dr. Thau: I hope to see more and more women leaders ... women should run for office in their local, state and national association. Our profession will only maintain the gains we've made and advance through the hard work of volunteers. We need everyone to contribute their talent and time.
In a virtual kick-off, the AOA launches Leadership Institute with 130 doctors of optometry from across the country. A project of the AOA Leadership Development Committee, the Institute is a yearlong program designed to grow and support the next generation of leaders in the profession.
At the 2021 Leaders Summit, AOA-member volunteers set priorities for the year and launched new initiatives to lead the profession forward.