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HomemifeatureWomen in Optometry: Future of a Profession

Women in Optometry: Future of a Profession

There were 3,241 women registered as optometrists in Australia as of 30 September 2019, representing 55.2% of all 5,871 registered optometrists.1 This compares with 47.17%, in December 2012,2 demonstrating a significant shift in the gender balance in less than seven years. Yet anecdotal evidence suggests that practice ownership is still male dominated.

At its recent high achievers’ meeting, Eyecare Plus facilitated a Women of Eyecare Plus panel discussion at which optometrists Soojin Nam (Sydney), Kylie Gough (Nambucca Heads, NSW), Lara Foster (Moss Vale, NSW) Liz Muller (Melbourne), and optometrist now practice consultant Lisa Jansen (Perth) explored the challenges women in optometry face and how they are being overcome. Their experiences and opinions are pertinent to work being undertaken by Optometry Australia as it progresses its 2040 strategy.

Melinda Gates, co-chair and founder of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, has said that “empowering women benefits all of society – men, women and children”.3

Her view is widely accepted and many organisations are making gender diversity a priority. Mentoring, training programs and discussion groups for women in leadership are commonplace and the merits of quotas for females in senior management and at board level are increasingly being discussed.

If you look at the current Optometry Board registration statistics, 68% of the current workforce under 40 years old are female

Liz Muller

While some believe that quotas will lead to employment based on gender as opposed to ability, there is now more recognition that quotas can be a tool to advance and improve gender equality by helping to overcome more traditional views that women cannot take on certain roles. It is argued that with increasing visibility of women in positions of leadership, more women will step up to the challenge.

FLEXIBILITY, RIGHT FROM THE START

However, true gender equality cannot be achieved in leadership without empowering women to develop personally and professionally, right from the very beginning of their careers. This will often necessitate flexibility to take time out of work to have children and for many, part time employment to enable them to provide their families with at-home care.

While it’s absolutely fair to argue that flexible work arrangements should be available to parents regardless of gender, statistics indicate that right now, it’s women who require the most support in this area.

According to the Australian Institute of Family Studies, despite changing attitudes to parental roles, over 40% of mothers work part-time, compared to only 4–5% of fathers and the percentage of stay-at-home dads (3–4%) has barely changed since 1991.4

Lara Foster

This is something that Optometry Australia (OA) is focussed on. The Association’s 2040 plan firmly acknowledges the increasing dominance of women in the profession and has established an internal working group which is working to identify and help address gendered barriers to optometrists progressing in their chosen profession of optometry. OA is also conscious that the work they are doing in relation to workplace flexibility must consider men and women equally.

Lisa Jansen believes this will be key to staff retention in a profession that is tightly resourced.

“If you look at the current Optometry Board registration statistics, 68% of the current workforce under 40 years old are female.1 This means we have to start planning for the future, especially if you currently own a practice and want to think about succession planning,” said Ms Jansen.

“We need to find flexible work models to allow women to stay in the workforce after having children. It is often seen as too difficult to return to full-time work after starting a family and if there are no other options, then women may opt out of working at all.”

Practice owner, Soojin Nam says finding ways to work around the current lack of access to childcare should be a priority for those who want to retain their young female optometrists.

Soojin Nam

“2017 data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics reveal that childcare remained the biggest barrier to women either entering the workforce or taking on more hours.5

“In understanding that women with a young family are limited by childcare availability and family support, as employers we need to remain relevant and empathetic to the practical limitations of their availability for work.

“Retaining valued employees in the workplace means finding creative ways to find a win-win solution that brings value to the practice but also gives them flexibility to best look after their family. Finding that right balance is what we are aiming for.”

Kylie Gough owns a practice in regional NSW where finding and retaining optometrists is typically more challenging than it is in the cities. She has found that offering part-time or mixed roles for employees with children can help retain staff.

Interestingly, as a spinoff of this employment approach, she has noted the consequential changing expectations of patients and customers.

“Compared to when I first graduated there is less expectation by patients that they will see a male practitioner,” she said.

Kylie Gough

HELPING WITH THE JUGGLE

Once back into the workforce after starting a family, the challenges of juggling a professional career and home life can become overwhelming.

Lara Foster believes support groups for optometrists who are young parents would be beneficial by enabling them to keep up to date on current optometry trends and issues, providing support when returning to work, or negotiating part time work, as well as providing advice to support health and well-being.

There’s no doubt that when people who meet identify common experiences, they are more likely to engage in beneficial open discussions without fear of being misunderstood or misjudged.

In South Australia, a Mums & Bubs group, set up by Optometry South Australia (O SA), now Optometry Victoria/South Australia, meets regularly to do CPD over cake. Optometry NSW/ACT is in the process of establishing a Facebook community for optometrist parents, which will provide an informal support network with access to expert advice from the Association.

Lisa Jansen

At national level, Optometry Australia will celebrate International Women’s Day on Sunday 8 March, by hosting a series of ‘conversation and cocktails’ events. The events will explore how Optometry Australia can support the profession to address gendered barriers to a fulfilling professional life, and a new web page has been launched to support women in the pursuit of leadership roles across the profession.

The Association operates an Optometry Advisor Help Desk,6 which is managed by the Association’s resident optometrists, to provide professional support to its members.

“We regularly support members – most commonly women – regarding extended leave due to parenting, either via email or phone,” said Sophie Koh, an optometrist managing the Help Desk.

“One of the members we recently assisted was a young mum living overseas who is struggling to juggle her young child, with no family assistance, while fulfilling her CPD requirements, and attaining her requirements for clinical hours etc. It’s tricky staying registered while residing overseas, but it can be done with some strategies.”

OA’s new website also has a section called Women in Optometry,7 which contains valuable baseline information on flexible working arrangements, rights in the workplace, leave entitlements, taking extended leave, and how to apply for CPD exemption due to maternity leave etc.

Getting back to work is one thing, moving into a leadership position can be quite a different challenge mentally, physically and logistically

Then there is the Optometry Board of Australia’s Return to Practice8 page which provides advice for parents who decide to downgrade to non-practising registration, if for instance, they decide to take time out to have several children.

MOVING INTO LEADERSHIP

Getting back to work is one thing, moving into a leadership position can be quite a different challenge mentally, physically and logistically, especially if you’re still juggling the needs of a family.

Lisa Jansen says women need to be encouraged into leadership roles by both mentoring and by example.

“One study of women in leadership revealed that women are more likely to put themselves forward for leadership roles if there are other women already in those roles. Another study, Women in the Workplace 2019 by McKinsey & Company,9 states that focussing on promoting more women to entry level management positions will lead to more women taking on senior management positions down the track,” she said.

Ms Jansen said she benefited enormously from mentors who supported her career development. Those mentors were all men, simply because there were very few women working in the roles she was entering.

“I was given an opportunity to be the first female to buy into a partnership at the age of 25, by partners who believed in me. Times have changed and there are now many more women in leadership roles and buying practices.

The point is, there are mentors and role models all around us

“As my career evolved, there were many times when a colleague put me forward for a role on a Board or panel and this gave me confidence, even when I doubted myself,” Ms Jansen said.

Indeed, Women Rising: The Unseen Barriers, published in Harvard Business Review10 notes that “Creating a safe setting – a coaching relationship, a women’s leadership program, a support group of peers – in which women can interpret these messages is critical to their leadership identity development.”

This was the case for Ms Foster. “Creating a supportive team around women helps them balance their home life with their work and enables them to talk through their challenges – I was very fortunate that Andrew McKinnon at O NSW/ACT was very supportive and adaptable during my period of leadership,” she said.

Kylie Gough also found mentors in the workplace helped her to become an effective leader.

“They were the optometrists I worked for who managed to balance clinical optometry and practice/business ownership… and the company I worked for in the UK – they taught me a lot about human resources, training, sales, dealing with suppliers and information technology.”

Of course mentorship and support can come from anywhere, not just the workplace, as Soojin Nam said.

“Some of the exceptional people who have been a mentor to me may not even know how important they have been – we may not have even spoken in person. Others have directly challenged me and pushed me to think outside the square”.

Don’t assume anything… as a practice owner, you will always be learning from experience… in fact, you will never stop learning

“The point is, there are mentors and role models all around us and I hold to the saying that when the student is ready, the teacher will show up. I have an open learning mentality and never assume I have all the answers.”

For Ms Muller, one of her principal mentors was her mother.

“My working mum taught me the importance of planning and organisation. These skills are vital in running a business and for organising family life. I also looked to other women who seem to ‘have it all’ and at how they have made that happen. They usually have a lot of support, and they usually delegate a lot. Women like Turia Pitt also inspire me to persist and not give up – she is a woman who has an incredible amount of strength and fought back after incredible odds stacked against her.”

SPONSOR VS MENTOR

Today there is more emphasis on sponsoring young leaders as opposed to mentoring them. The difference is significant: a mentor will give advice and guidance whereas a sponsor will actively help a woman achieve her goal by advocating for her and pushing her forward for new roles and promotions.11 

According to Ms Jansen, it has been shown that having a more senior male ‘sponsor’ a female colleague by spending 30 minutes per week having a chat and coffee, and recognising her successes, can help develop and retain talented women.

LIFE’S LESSONS

Living life and running a business is always easier in retrospect. The panel’s views on what they wish they’d known before setting out to acquire and manage an optometry practice are pearls of wisdom for future leaders, regardless of gender.

From a business perspective, Ms Gough said working in a practice before you purchase it will help you gauge its potential.

“When purchasing an existing practice, don’t just look at the figures, look at the statistics available on the local population so you know what to expect.”

Recognising your personal strengths and working out systematic ways to manage life and business are also key, says Ms Nam.

“I’ve often been asked how I manage to do what I do. The reality is when you have your own business, there are a lot of areas that require your attention and this means it is very easy to become overwhelmed and stressed.

“One concept I wish I had learnt earlier was that of opening and closing loops12 – it would have helped me organise my tasks and prioritise where my attention had to go.

“Every time you start or think about a new task (eg I need to pick up milk on the way home) you open a loop. Learn to close loops and improve productivity by having a strategy such as using notes/reminders/ calendars to priortise what needs to be completed.”

Ms Muller said you also need to be prepared to become a ‘jack of all trades’.

“Not only are you an optometrist, you take on so many other roles like IT, psychologist, handyman, payroll, marketing etc. I wish I’d had more training and hands-on experience in managing people and developing a team before I started my business. All staff require guidance and direction, some more than others, so be prepared to be involved in constant training. I found that providing continual feedback was paramount to keeping the team focussed on the goals of the business.”

Ms Gough agrees that HR is complex and requires tough decision making. “Don’t be afraid to lose staff if they do not share your vision for the future or if they disrupt your team,” she said.

And regardless of what you know when you first take on your practice, and what you learn along the way, Ms Muller says there will always be more to know.

“Don’t assume anything … as a practice owner, you will always be learning from experience… in fact, you will never stop learning.”

For Ms Jansen it all comes back to looking after yourself.

“Running a business is more like a marathon than a sprint. You need to pace yourself to go the distance. Selfcare is one of the most counter-intuitive principles in balancing a business and raising a family. It feels selfish to put yourself first but in fact it is the most selfless thing you can do if it allows you to be a better mother, wife, partner or businesswoman, because you are happier and not burnt out.”

References 

  1. Optometry Board of Australia Registrant data. Reporting period: 01 July 2019 to 30 September 2019. www. optometryboard.gov.au/About/Statistics.aspx 
  2. Optometry Board of Australia Registrant data. Reporting period: December 2012. Published January 2013. www. optometryboard.gov.au/About/Statistics.aspx 
  3. medium.com/@DFID_UK/melinda-gates-empoweredwomen- and-girls-will-transform-societies-5f065738e08
  4. aifs.gov.au/facts-and-figures/work-and-family 
  5. www.abs.gov.au/AUSSTATS/abs@.nsf/ Lookup/6239.0Main+Features1July%202016%20to%20 June%202017?OpenDocument 
  6. www.optometry.org.au/practice-professional-support/ optometry-advisor-help-desk 
  7. www.optometry.org.au/practice-professional-support/ women-in-optometry 
  8. www.optometry.org.au/practice-professional-support/ women-in-optometry/planning-extended-leave/oba-returnto- practice-supervised-practice-plan 
  9. Huang J, Krivkovich A, Starikova I, Yee L, and Zanoschi D. Women in the Workplace 2019 October 2019 www. mckinsey.com/featured-insights/gender-equality/womenin- the-workplace-2019 
  10. Ibarra H, Ely RJ, Kolb D M. Women Rising: The Unseen Barriers Harvard Business Review, September 2013 
  11. Hoey K Dec 20, 2018 Forget Mentoring, Sponsorship Is What’s Needed To Keep Women In Tech, Forbes, 20 Dec, 2018. 
  12. www.uncoveryourpurpose.com/open-loopsproductivity