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What Women Want

By Jennifer Lyerly, OD, of DefocusMedia.com

Every year Review of Optometry publishes their annual income survey, and every year it sparks a deep moment of self-reflection in our industry. Are we being paid equally as females in the profession? 2017 was another resounding no by the way with a 3% bigger gap between gender pay than in 2016. And are we satisfied with our pay? Despite the gap, 77% of survey respondents were either satisfied or very satisfied with their income last year.

Do those apparently diametrically opposed results say something significant about our profession? Is there a sense of complacency among female optometrists where the gender pay gap is concerned? Review of Optometry reports that men out earned full time working females in optometry by 40% in 2017. As women we can’t help but read these differences with a sense of disdain (when I posted the 2017 pay gap on Instagram a fellow female OD responded “#rage” which felt especially fitting). But what are we doing to make a change? And why does our rage typically not last much longer past finishing the article or commenting on social media? When we look at larger surveys across US women and millennials specifically, which make up a large portion of the new female workforce in our profession as female enrollment in optometry school has climbed to historic levels, gender and generational differences show that what we want in a satisfying career has very little to do with the money we make.

What Does Success Look Like?

Last year Women in Optometry reported that women account for 42% of optometrists practicing in the US, and 67.1% of optometry school students. We are experiencing a moment of major change as to the diversity of what optometry looks like as a profession, and with that we bring the influence of what matters to us as women to what optometry provides as a career. In 2017 ELLE Magazine and CSNBC partnered on a survey of 2000 women age 18 to 54 to investigate how they defined career success. When asked what qualities of life were most valuable? Family time and having time for myself ranked as number 1 and 2 respectively, and financial success came in down at number 5. Similarly, when asked what factors are important to measuring your success at work, 73% of survey respondents said “personal satisfaction I get from my job,” 64% cited work-life balance and only 42% cited salary. Why does the pay gap persist in optometry? Industry bias is easy to blame, but perhaps it’s because we as women just don’t value salary all that much, and in turn don’t push hard in negotiations or in selecting job opportunities to increase that number because we are negotiating for what we value higher, including vacation time and better working hours.

If today’s women aren’t that personally motivated by salary, and instead derive more sense of success and career satisfaction from the work-life balance and sense of purpose our careers give us, is there a better way in surveys for us to measure our career happiness? Could traditional income surveys be missing the point on what makes us as female optometrists happy? Study after study is indicating that women and the millennial generation as a whole puts less importance on traditional workplace values. Take for example the common lament of baby boomer generation ODs (which skew more male due to gender differences in the enrollment in optometry school in that era) that new graduate ODs just aren’t interested in buying into their practice. They aren’t working towards ownership, and they aren’t starting their own businesses, flying against the long held success ideal of private practice ownership that has always been lauded as the top tier of optometry within the profession. In a 2012 article published in The Atlantic, 65% fewer Americans under age 30 own a business than did in the 1980s. Starting a traditional small business is trending down as a career option across our entire US population. As a whole, Americans seem to be looking for a sense of accomplishment elsewhere.

When I talk to young optometrists around the country, the entrepreneurial spirit is far from dead, but being a small business owner is taking on a lot more nuance in definition than the traditional brick and mortar practice. We have internet entrepreneurs like Dr. Jaclyn Garlich of 20/20 Glance and Instagram sensations like Dr. Ari Fartash of @GlamOptometrist who work in group practice settings by day, but have very successful entrepreneurial small businesses within optometry. We have employed ODs branding themselves through their own social media as ambassadors for their professions. Dr. Maria Sampalis has been a vocal leader for doctors that work in a corporate setting to create their own independent small business brand identity. You aren’t the Sears doctor, but Sampalis Eye Care within the Sears location. Corporate optometry is the new wave of small business entrepreneurs in optometry? That tired argument of private versus corporate optometry is showing a lot of dust and white hair about now, and quickly reaching a time for retirement.

So yes the gender salary gap in optometry was substantial again in 2017, but does that make our satisfaction within the profession any less? Striving for more equitable pay in optometry is a battle worth fighting for, but what we care about as a population and gender even more is striving for a profession that’s more fulfilling and rewarding. Are we happy with our vacation time? Our maternity leave policies? Our retirement plans? Our time that we get to spend with family and loved ones? Are women negotiating and choosing careers that prioritize these things that matter most to us? The income numbers don’t lie, but they don’t tell the full story of the value of our profession for young women graduating from school either. When we define success in our own way we can be free to achieve what we really want!

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