Published in Non-Clinical

Celebrating International Women's Day in Optometry

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7 min read

As the number of women leading our profession continues to grow, it's important to take time to dismantle our unconscious gender biases—and International Women's Day 2022 is focused on doing just that.

Celebrating International Women's Day in Optometry
Happy International Women's Day!
International Women’s Day is celebrated each year on March 8th, during Women’s History Month. First celebrated in 1911 by the International Conference of Working Women in Austria, Denmark, Germany, and Switzerland, the celebration grew until it became a United Nations-recognized international celebration in 1975.

Celebrating women in optometry

In optometry, we similarly began small and grew exponentially over the years to celebrate great women.
The first licensed female optometrist in the United States, Gertrude Stanton, was reportedly licensed in 1901. By 1912, that number had grown to 500 licensed female optometrists in the United States. There were two women in the list of charter members when the American Optometric Association was founded in 1898.
When we look at optometry today, it seems like a distant memory when there were only a handful of female optometrists. Female optometrists currently make up 43% of optometrists, and 68% of students graduating from optometry school. This is a substantial increase from 2009 when only 29% of optometrists and 64% of optometry students identified as female.
Across the board, optometry is seeing women leading our profession. At the time of writing, there are 5 women serving on the AOA Board of Trustees, half of the AAO Board of Directors, 14 women on the NOA executive board, and over half of the Editorial Board of Eyes On Eyecare is comprised of women. These numbers are just the tip of the iceberg of women leading in positions on the national, state, and local scale.
Women are being recognized for their incredible work in our profession in 2021 and 2022. Women took home recognition from the AOA in the categories of:
  • Distinguished Service Award: Michelle Welsh, OD
  • Optometrist of the Year: Brenda Starkey, OD
  • Optometric Educator of the Year: Lillian Kalaczinski, OD
Within the American Academy of Optometry, women were recognized for their clinical and research efforts:
  • Clinical Research Award: Maria Walker, OD, PhD, FAAO
  • Essilor Award for Outstanding International Contributions to Optometry: Bina J. Patel, OD, FAAO
  • Brian Holden Humanitarian Award: Kimberly S. Molter, OD
  • Irvin M and Beatrice Borish Award: Tawna L. Roberts, OD, PhD, FAAO
  • Michael G Harris Family Award for Excellence in Education: Etty Bitton, OD, MSc, FAAO and Anne Mika Moy, OD, FAAO
In addition, the National Optometric Association named Camille Cohen OD, Young Optometrist of the Year. This doesn’t include the incredible women who are recognized by Women in Optometry for their work in advancing optometry and women within the profession.
Meanwhile, optometry is having a heyday: States are passing laws giving optometrists increased scope of practice, individual organizations are making strides in diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives, and we’re seeing incredible advancements in the treatment of ocular diseases.

Growing the profession, starting with schools

To create great women leaders in optometry, we must first think about our optometry schools. Women are not only leading our profession, but they are educating our profession.
Currently, 59% of optometry school faculty members are female. The rise in female educators is reflected in the number of women pursuing residencies: in the 2021-2022 residency class, 77% are women.
When we combine our great female leaders and our great female educators, we find our eight great deans of optometry schools. Student leaders are predominately women. Of the AOSA Trustees and Trustee-Elects, 38 are female, with a woman recently being elected to the 2021 AOSA executive board. Women are creating the next generation of optometrists, and are the next generation of optometrists, providing great opportunities for women to begin their leadership in our profession early on.

Hurdles still remain for women in optometry

Each year, we are seeing an increase in the number of women in the profession as their leadership and impact rises exponentially. Yet even with these strides, women have hurdles to overcome in our profession—starting with the wage gap.
There is a current wage gap of 6.5% within optometry, with fewer women owning optometric practices than their male counterparts. While women are making less money, they also carry the burden of large amounts of student loan debt. In the 2021 Eyes On Eyecare Optometrist Report, on average employed female optometrists owe $13,000 more than their male counterparts.
Daily, women share their stories on Instagram, Facebook, and LinkedIn about being asked “When the doctor is coming in?,” comments indicating the biases that patients and professionals still carry when interacting with female optometrists.
While women are slowly becoming the majority in our profession, there are still biases that impact female optometrists and broader healthcare specialties, both conscious and unconscious.

2022 International Women’s Day: Break the Bias

The theme of 2022 International Women's Day is “Break the Bias,” calling for people to challenge and overcome the many biases surrounding women’s capabilities in the world. Whether that means the bias around women’s ability to lead because of their roles as caretakers, or bias around what professions women may pursue, there is an opportunity to break the bias.
As we continue to have women leading our profession, it is important to take time to dismantle our unconscious gender biases. To begin, check on your possible unconscious bias around gender, science, and careers. Harvard’s Project Implicit has a quick test to see how you may be impacted by your unconscious bias. After you know more about your possible bias, it is time to actively challenge yourself to break the bias!
This can look like advocating for women in your workplace, employing women with gender-equal salaries (and advocating for pay parity or equity more generally), reading books about women’s experiences, looking for ways to change systems that disadvantage women, or any opportunity you have to speak out against gender bias.
Optometry is a profession dedicated to making our world a better place by improving sight for all people. When we continue to dismantle gender bias and continue to champion causes for women we will grow to lead the medical profession when it comes to equality.
Happy International Women’s Day! How are you going to #BreakTheBias?
Kate Hamm, OD
About Kate Hamm, OD

After graduating from UMSL College of Optometry in 2019, Dr. Kate Hamm, OD began practicing at a private practice in Wichita, KS. Optometry and women’s equality are Kate’s passions. She volunteers with the Kansas Optometric Association, co-hosts a podcast on Defocus media: Lunch Date with Rachel and Kate, is the co-founder of the Optometric Compensation Research Group, and she recently completed an internship with Essilor.

Kate loves to connect with her community, and is involved with her local Lean-In and League of Women Voters chapter. Even though she seems busy, you can usually find her goofing around on her Instagram @dr.instahamm with her cat and husband.

Kate Hamm, OD
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