April 21, 2017

Optrafair 2017 session report: Women in Optics

Part time work, women in leadership roles and the future of optics were all discussed at Optrafair’s first Women in Optics panel. Jo Gallacher reports.

Currently it will take more than half a century before the gender pay gap closes in the UK, according to the latest report from professional services firm Deloitte. Last year just seven CEOs on the FTSE 100 list were women. Countless reports, statistics and newspaper columns all lead to the same conclusion: women still have a long way to go when it comes to full equality in the workplace.

However the same may not be said for optics, given that the College of Optometrist’s Optical Workforce Survey shows women have made up the majority of the workforce since 2009. Reflecting the times, this year’s Optrafair featured a Question-Time style Women in Optics debate to discuss issues within the industry.

The debate kicks off with a question from the floor regarding the effect of more female professionals on the optical industry. Perkins notes opportunities for women have increased tremendously throughout her career given just five women were in Perkins’s academic year at Cardiff University in 1962. She says:

‘I could never have imagined women would be taking over the world of optometry. It doesn’t matter to our customers, they’re not fearful of it and I think we are creating a problem because we’re talking about it too much with our own colleagues and our business. Women are enthusiastic and valuable and tend to put more effort into working.’

Fernandes agrees, arguing women often bring something different to the workforce than men.

‘The profession is becoming a more exciting and dynamic work place, it’s wonderful to have women’s voices heard. I’ve been asking men and women what they think the impact is of having extra women in the work place and the answers given by men were a better bed side manner and more empathy.’

The College’s Optical Workplace Survey also shows women represent the greatest percentage of part time work, a trend which Perkins claims is down to optometry and dispensing optics offering flexibility for females as well as reasonably paid wages.

But Asif adds it’s not just women who are opting for more part time work. ‘The Optical Workplace Survey actually said that the generation from the 1980s and 1990s want to work part time because they want to pursue passion. This is the trend now whereas my grandparent’s generation worked five or six days a week flat out. It’s all changed now, women and men can go part time and enjoy life at a younger age.’


Most industries suffer from a lack of diversity when it comes to women in senior roles and although the panel acknowledges optics does boast several female leaders, all note more could be done. Abel says: ‘You don’t just become a leader, it’s an organic process. There’s lots of women out there who qualify as optometrists and just stay inside practices and don’t go further than that.’

She now wants to see more women pushing themselves and going for the bigger jobs as well as pushing for more clinical skills. ‘We have a responsibility as directors and owners of companies to really promote them. There’s millennials coming through who want to learn and want to progress.’

For women to succeed in senior roles there needs to be a movement from the ground upwards according to Sandhu, who commends ABDO for trying to encourage young women through its system. ‘If you are on the board bring someone else with you and show them it’s not scary,’ Sandhu adds.

It’s a pathway which has worked well for Asif, who is now chair of Dudley Local Optical Committee and council member for the College. She says: ‘It was only when I was in a LOC that people saw the potential in me and gave me opportunities to take on tasks. I was able to progress rapidly so if you’re having difficulty then go down the LOC route.’

It is now up to women who have already climbed the ladder to these senior positions to encourage and mentor others, something which Perkins says doesn’t often happen. ‘Women don’t network like men do and it’s still an old men’s club. Although that’s changing there’s still the unconscious bias which is stopping women going forward.’

But Perkins reinforces it’s important for women not to become too focused with their gender. ‘I can honestly say I never paid any attention to whether I was a woman I just went there and that was it,’ she adds.

The debate also attempted to answer more general issues within optics, particularly the way locums are treated within the industry and whether the panel sees locums as a resource. Sandhu argues locums are an added bonus to any practice. ‘They have more knowledge than most and have a wide economic base. In my practice it’s nice to chat to locums to ask what’s happening in the wider world and to see who’s doing what product.’

Yet within Optometry Wales Davis notes locums are currently underrepresented as they rarely get involved in optical politics. She hopes to see more locums involved in discussion in the future in order to get across their views to practice owners.


In an industry which is witnessing rapid changes in its technology, services and workforce, the future of optics is an inevitable discussion. All panel members agree optics needs to be more collaborative within its various disciplines.

Davis describes an instance while collecting data for the General Optical Council’s upcoming Education Review when on behalf of Optometry Wales she consulted with ABDO about its members. Optometrists immediately objected, questioning Davis on why she was ‘promoting dispensing opticians’. She says: ‘We really have to get better at being more professional and collaborative because if you cannot see incorporating a DO and them doing more than the regular bread and butter in the business model then there is no hope.’

Fernandes, who runs three successful independent practices across Bristol, looks to the multiples to set a precedent when it comes to sight test fees. She says: ‘When we’re negotiating for enhanced services we should charge a realistic fee so we can provide an excellent service and don’t have to upsell on our glasses afterwards. If we offer free sight tests we are putting the view of optometry and actually patient care at risk, as well as costing secondary care more money in the long term so that would be my heart felt plea to the big companies out there.’

In response Perkins draws parallels between the Specsavers business model and the Scottish NHS, arguing free sight tests encourage people who would have otherwise not have entered the ‘optometrist’s shop’ to have regular sight tests. She says: ‘The Scottish model had a 29% uptake in people having their eyes examined [after the introduction of free sight tests]. If I have to entice people in by wavering that charge, and believe you and me it’s a bigger uptake when that happens, then I would do that because it’s preventing sight loss.’

The free sight test debate proves to be a contentious issue with panellists disagreeing on where to draw the line. Davis receives a round of applause from the audience when arguing although the Scottish model has its merits, optometrists cannot work for free. ‘You have got to pay the optometrist and have a good practice which is well equipped and that’s achieved by having a fee for an eye test and a good fee for an enhanced service. Let’s have lots of eye tests but let’s also get paid properly for them.’

As issues surrounding women’s equality force their way into the limelight, the importance of discussion and debate becomes paramount. The Women in Optics Optrafair panel demonstrates just one of many ways issues within the optical community can be appropriately and respectfully addressed.