Optometry is a fantastic career for women, with its combination of clinical work and people contact, and the ability to work flexibly. But unconscious bias can still sometimes get in the way of their career progression, according to Specsavers co-founder Dame Mary Perkins.
Responding to a question during Optrafair’s Question Time on how to encourage more women into leadership positions in optometry, she said: ‘It does come down to the women and the men who are in senior leadership positions mentoring and encourage women to get into higher levels. And women need to network better. Although things are changing, there is still unconscious bias which is stopping women moving forward. So I think it is up to the women who are already there to mentor and encourage other women to get into the higher levels of optometry.’
Mary was speaking as a panel member at the ‘Women in Optics’ Question Time at Optrafair, which was chaired by Dr Cindy Tromans, consultant optometrist at Manchester Royal Eye Hospital.
Alongside Mary on the panel were (above, from left to right): Shamina Asif, self-employed optometrist in the West Midlands and chair of Dudley LOC; Jayne Abel, optometrist and co-founder, Eyespace; Lynne Fernandes, optometrist and director, Lynne Fernandes Optometrists;
Sali Davis, Chief Executive, Optometry Wales; and Jayshree Vasani, dispensing optician and practical examiner for ABDO.
Women now significantly outnumber men in the optical workplace and panel members were asked what impact this was having on the profession and also how NHS reforms and advances in technology were changing its scope.
Mary commented that from reading the Optical Workforce Survey and from Specsavers’ own statistics it was clear that women were more likely to take on postgraduate accreditation for enhanced optical services.
‘They are enthusiastic and they are very committed, even when they work part-time,’ she said. ‘I come from an age where there were only five women in my year in optics at Cardiff in 1962. I could never have imagined that we would have taken over optometry to this extent.’
In response to a challenge from another panel member, she also gave a passionate defence of free sight test offers. ‘My mission is to get people to come for regular eye checks for the health of their eyes because that is the way we are going,’ she said. ‘The national health is running out of money. We’re not King Canute: we can’t stop the tide. We’re focusing on upskilling optometrists, working hand in hand with ophthalmologists. But unfortunately in England we don’t have the Scottish model of a free sight test.
‘If we have to entice people within by waiving the sight fee charge and if that leads to a bigger uptake of people coming to have their eyes examined then I will do this because it is preventing sight loss. Twenty people in the UK lose their sight every month, and half of these cases could have been prevented.
‘All the research we do – and we carry out almost 20 million sight tests a year – shows that there are people who would not have gone to see an optometrist unless it had been free.’