Women in Optometry:50/50?

Twenty years after the gender shift began, women still face unique challenges.

Cover Story
Women in Optometry:50/50?
Twenty years after the gender shift began, women still face unique challenges.

Statistically speaking, optometry isn't a man's world anymore. According to "Caring for the Eyes of America 2000," before 1980, nearly all optometry school graduates were male, so females still make up less than 25% of practicing optometrists today. A recent survey of 10 of the nation's optometry schools reveals that in eight, women made up at least half of the 2002 graduating class. Yet these women enter a profession traditionally dominated by men. How will they fare? To answer this question, Optometric Management interviewed female O.D.s to gain their perspectives on how they were treated while in school and while practicing, and what advice they have for other women. But first, here's how they got started.


The making of a female O.D.

Having parents in medicine (her mother a nurse, her father an anesthesiologist), Maureen Weldon Kamons, B.S.N., O.D., of Pittsburgh, Pa., wanted the best of those worlds, but with a little tweaking. She welcomed a flexible schedule and the opportunity to own her own practice that optometry offered. "My father spent a lot of time away from home and on call -- that's why I wanted to be a healthcare provider with a regular schedule," says Dr. Kamons.

Marjorie S. Ross, O.D., of Battle Creek, Mich., found her calling when she received vision training from an osteopathic ophthalmologist who suggested she look into optometry.

Growing up, Paula R. Newsome, O.D., M.S., F.A.A.O., of Charlotte, N.C., wanted to be a doctor. Later on, she found that optometry is an interesting profession that would enable her to have a career and a family.

Janet E. Summers, O.D., M.H.P., of Oakmont, Pa., was influenced by her high school job working for an optometrist. She entered college as a Spanish major and later combined both interests when she worked for a time in a Spanish-speaking community.

Claudia House, O.D., of Moon Township, Pa., says she want-ed to become an O.D. since she was about 15. She wore glasses as a child and wanted to know how the eyes work.

These women forged their careers with determination and they moved beyond opposition and discrimination to become successful.

Encountering discrimination

Dr. Newsome, who was the first black female O.D. to practice in her state, had a college professor who said that women should be barefoot and pregnant. "No one was bashful about saying that," she says.

In the real world, Dr. Newsome went to a bank for a loan to start her practice. "The bank was reluctant," she recalls. "Of course it's illegal now, but they asked me if I planned on getting married and having children."

Dr. Summers had a similar experience when a bank wanted her father to co-sign her initial practice loan and when one of the faculty members at her school said that women in optometry schools were wasting a spot that a man could have had.

Dr. Kamons believes that discrimination is often directed more toward a younger woman than to a middle-aged woman. She herself sees less of it today than she did 10 years ago.

Dr. Kamons doesn't think she gets equal treatment when buying equipment, having it serviced, getting a fair deal on real estate or negotiating a lease.

Dr. Ross, who was one of two women who graduated from the Southern College of Optometry in 1951, says, "My only encounter with discrimination occurred shortly after graduation. An established older practitioner said he'd offer me a job if I was a good typist because he was losing his office girl. I replied that I'd consider it if he'd make the same offer to any of the men."

"This is not a hobby; this is my life."
Paula R. Newsome, O.D. (with her daughter)

Figuring in a family

For many women, having a family is a priority and a daunting challenge while maintaining a career. Dr. Kamons says that many of her male classmates were able to start families earlier, but the females had to wait until they were established.

"As a solo practitioner in a private practice setting, it's a constant worry about whether there will be any complications during the pregnancy or after the child is born that will require your full attention. If this is the case, the practice wouldn't survive," remarks Dr. Kamons.

She was four years into solo practice when she and her husband decided to start a family, and at the time, she wasn't even working 40 hours. Dr. Kamons also worked for a commercial optometric practice on the side. She quit that job when she had her first child and worked about 20 hours each week in her own practice. The hours have gradually increased over the years and she now puts in about 25 to 30 hours each week.

Dr. House, who works four days and two evenings each week, says her life is easier because she's not balancing a family.

Others achieved that balance with a supreme dedication to their family and professional lives. For example, only five weeks after delivering by Cesarean section, Dr. Newsome returned to the office. She fixed up a play area at her office and hired someone to watch her daughter at work.

"I didn't sacrifice anything when I started my family," she says. Now a divorced, single mom, she cut back on community involvement and she says she's always tired, but a positive attitude keeps her going.

Dr. Summers has always maintained a rigorous schedule and multiple locations, but regrets only taking off three weeks after her son was born. Her family helped a lot when he was young.

Dr. Ross didn't have to worry about the family/career balance. She explains, "My dedication was to the profession of optometry."

Proof that hard work pays off

Dr. Kamons established her first practice in 1992 and just purchased a building, which she plans to renovate and open as a satellite office in the spring 

"The young women of today must have the opportunity to move into the political arena."
Marjorie S. Ross, O.D.

of 2003. She plans to hire an associate to help maintain both practices. Recently, she was awarded Optometrist of the Year by the Western Pennsylvania Optometric Society, for which she has served as a board member for the past three years.

Dr. Newsome now sees roughly 8,000 patients each year, yet she started out solo cold -- or as she calls it, solo hot. "I wasn't going to just sit around," she says. "I needed to generate enough patients to pay my bills."

Dr. Ross served on the Michigan Optometric Association (MOA) board of trustees for 12 years and became its first female president in 1972. After serving her term at the MOA office, someone suggested that she run for the AOA board of trustees, which she did and succeeded.

Dr. House is most proud of the fact that she started her practice cold and is successful with it.

Dr. Summers currently owns five practice locations but is divesting herself from three. "After 25 years in practice, I'm ready to go back to school or teach," she explains. The locations she'll keep are close to home so her son can walk to and work in the office after school.

These women have come a long way and are happy with their profession. They offer their insights in the following section.

Reflecting on life choices

"All things said and done," comments Dr. Kamons, "it's clear now that where I am today personally and professionally is very much where I envisioned being as a young woman deciding to enter optometry."

Says Dr. House, "I can't imagine a better job -- this is great."

The idea of women in optometry is old news to Dr. Summers. "I would like to see more women own the drug companies and the business that supply our practices," she admits.

Dr. Ross offers similar advice to new female O.D.s: "Become involved in the affairs of your state, as well as the national organization and work to build and keep a strong, vital and ever-growing profession." She thinks that women today who are willing and able to take their place in the optometric political arena are often discouraged. "We've fought long and hard for recognition and our rightful place in the field of optometry," she adds. "To carry on and expand further, the young women of today must have the opportunity to move into the political arena."

"Women are emerging as a dominant force."
Maureen W. Kamons, O.D.

Says Dr. Summers, "Delayed gratification is not the way I operate any more. I've spent the last 20 years of my life rushing and there have been many times that I missed the baseball game or forgot to block out some time for Halloween. I've reorganized my priorities now." On a final note, Dr. Summers comments: "I've always wanted to pave the road for female O.D.s by my own example." And she still has a goal of putting together a national network of outstanding O.D.s who just happen to be female.

Paving the road

The women interviewed for this article did face some opposition while pursuing their dreams. But they all dealt with it, and in the process, developed a thick skin and a positive attitude that ward off any discrimination. They now refuse to acknowledge it or let it affect them.

Women have come a long way in the profession. "Optometry," Dr. Kamons adds, "is ahead of other professions in terms of gender equality." Through hard work, these women achieved their goals. In this regard, optometry has set a high standard for other industries to meet.


Having it All: Career and Children
By Bob Levoy, O.D.

A subject of growing concern to women in the optometric profession as well as to their partners (both in marriage and in practice) is how to balance work, marriage and children. A recent book, Creating A Life: Professional Women and the Quest For Children (Talk Miramax Books, 2002) by economist Sylvia Ann Hewlett, addresses these issues.

Hewlett conducted a nationwide survey of highly-educated/ high-earning women. It revealed that at mid-life, between one third and one half of all high-achieving women in America are childless.

The survey also finds that overall, high-achieving women are much less likely to marry than their male counterparts.

"At the end of the day," Hewlett writes, "women simply want the choices of love and work that men take for granted." Among her recommendations for "having it all" are:

  • Look ahead. Decide what you want your life to look like at age 45 -- both personally and professionally. If it turns out you want children, she writes, then you need to become "highly intentional and seriously proactive". If not, the pressure is off.
  • Give urgent priority to finding a partner. This project, Hewlett says, is extremely time-sensitive and deserves special attention in your 20s.
  • Have your first child before 35. Don't wait until your late 30s or early 40s before trying to have that first child. "As we now understand," Hewlett writes, "late-in-life childbearing is fraught with risk and failure. And even if you manage to get one child 'under the wire,' you may fail to have a second, which can trigger enormous regret."

Among the work-related options Hewlett describes to achieve a more balanced life, are: Reduced-hour schedules; job sharing; compressed work weeks; and flextime.