The recent election of Kate Gifford as National President of Optometry Australia contributes to an encouraging trend in the Australian optometry profession – the increasingly strong representation of women at all levels.
Ms Gifford joins CEO Genevieve Quilty in leading the organisation, which represents the interests of more than 90% of all Australian‐based optometrists, more than half of whom are female. Other female leaders in the sector include Professor Fiona Stapleton, Head of School of Optometry and Vision Science, University of New South Wales, and Associate Professor Allison McKendrick, Head of Department at The University of Melbourne's Department of Optometry.
Ms Gifford, who along with Ms Quilty visited Parliament House earlier this month to hear Shannon Peckham speak on her experience as Australia's first Indigenous female optometrist, is delighted to be part of this development and believes the future of the profession is in strong hands.
'From our latest figures, we are now for the first time seeing female optometrists outnumbering males in the profession," she said.
'This is a vastly different picture from 20 years ago, when women made up only a third of registered optometrists. Now, of the 4,902 optometrists in Australia, more than half are female. We are seeing higher representation across NSW, ACT and Victoria.
'This image demonstrates to young women considering specialising in optometry that our industry is open, diverse and broadly reflective of the society we live in. We hope this will give encouragement to more women considering a career in this field."
Ms Gifford assumed her role in November, becoming only the second female President in Optometry Australia's 97-year history. It complements her position as sole practice owner of Gerry & Johnson Optometrists in Brisbane. She said is proud to be working in an environment that values and promotes female leadership.
Research in 2014 by the Workplace Gender Equality Agency found that despite comprising 45.9% of the Australian workforce and having comparable educational attainment to men, Australia suffers a concerning lack of women in leadership position. The study showed that women constitute only 2.6% of Chair positions, 2.4% of CEO positions, and 9.2% of director positions in ASX500 companies.
'We are increasingly seeing confident and highly proficient women emerge as leaders in optometry, demonstrating their wealth of ambition and expertise. My female colleagues and I have worked extremely hard to get to the positions we are in now, and it is testament to the profession that female role models are valued, respected and appointed based on ability rather than gender," she concluded.
For more information on optometry in Australia, or to find your local optometrist visit: www.optometrists.asn.au
Question: What originally inspired you to become an Optometrist?
Kate Gifford: Despite being a maths-science student at high school, I was interested in studying law. I decided on optometry at the eleventh hour in my final year of high school, after it popped into my head at a tertiary study expo. I then undertook work experience with independent Optometrist Henry Heron in Toowoomba, QLD, where I grew up. Henry was passionate about his work and his profession, being the Optometrists Association of Australia QLD/NT Division President at the time. Henry was also a small business owner, and this challenge along with the positive experience of interacting with a loyal patient base also appealed to me
Question: Do you have eye-sight issues?
Kate Gifford: I had perfect vision when I started optometry studies, and lousy vision by the end, most likely due to the detrimental influence of computer work. I had my first eye examination at age 16 and from memory, complained myself into a pair of reading glasses which I doubt I needed! Now with paediatric optometry as one of my specialty interests, I regularly have children of all ages try to convince me that they too need glasses, and sometimes bursting into tears when I declare their vision perfect!
When I was 19 I became shortsighted (myopic) and now need glasses to see clearly beyond 1-2 metres. I wouldn't have it otherwise, though, as I can properly appreciate my patients' experiences. I have personally experimented with almost every type of contact lens and spectacle lens design to inform my prescribing decisions and help my patients understand their vision correction options.
Question: Can you talk us through the study required to become an Optometrist?
Kate Gifford: Firstly you need a very high tertiary entry score from secondary school studies to gain a position to study optometry. Optometry was a four year undergraduate degree when I undertook my studies, but now it ranges from an accelerated 3.5 years, to a five year Bachelor/Masters, to a seven year Doctorate of Optometry across five universities in Australia. I completed a part‐time Graduate Certificate to enable ophthalmic medicines prescribing after two years in practice, which is now included in all undergraduate courses. Around 40% of my colleagues have similarly undertaken this qualification to allow us to prescribe eye medications like your GP can.
As a practicing optometrist, you must undertake a certain number of continuing professional development hours each year, which ensures your ongoing education as a health professional. There is additional structured study that some optometrists may choose to undertake. I've completed four professional fellowships, which provide a clinical and academic learning experience and result in a mark of esteem for advanced understanding in particular fields. My fellowships are in contact lens practice, teaching and general optometry. I'm currently four years into a part time PhD, which involves clinical research in my practice, combining my key passions of paediatric optometry, binocular vision (eye muscle coordination) and specialty contact lens practice.
Question: What's a typical day's work like, for you?
Kate Gifford: Around a third of my patients are children, where I investigate any visual stumbling blocks to their learning. Most children can see a letter chart without much hassles, but far more children can have problems with their eye muscle coordination which can impede concentration and comprehension without having obvious signs like blurred vision. The next third of my patients are adults requiring vision and eye health care, and the final third are contact lens wearers, of all ages. On school holidays, though, it's all kids, which I love. I undertake clinical work three days per week, with the other two days spent on practice management, developing peer education material, my PhD and my Optometry Australia role.
Question: What do you love most about your work?
Kate Gifford: I've owned and operated my practice (Gerry & Johnson Optometrists) in the Brisbane CBD for almost 8 years, and worked in this practice for 11. In this time I've seen so many of my paediatric patients grow up, and become part of their families for the once or twice a year that they come to visit me. I love solving people's problems, especially if it's a complex one that has seen long investigation in the past. I believe my most important job is patient education and really enjoy helping my patients understand their eyes and their options to achieve their best vision. Running a small business is endless hard work, but I love working with my small team and being in control of our direction at every turn – being nimble and responsive to our patients' needs and that of the business environment.
Seeking out continual learning opportunities, in Australia and overseas, has lead me into a peer education role. In my areas of clinical expertise, I have lectured to my peers at conferences in this country, as well as in England, America, New Zealand and even teaching ophthalmologists and Nurses how to fit specialty contact lenses in Vietnam. These experiences have seen opportunities to meet the clinical and academic leaders of my profession, and to develop personal and professional friendships with colleagues across the globe. Beyond the four walls of my consultation room, optometry is a national and international community of clever, passionate people and being a part of this is infinitely rewarding and a constant learning experience.
Question: Are you surprised to hear there are more women in the optometry profession than men, currently?
Kate Gifford: I'd always felt that optometry was a very gender balanced profession, for as long as I've been involved, so I'm not too surprised to see more high achieving young women selecting optometry studies. It is a very appealing profession for young people interested in health, but perhaps not interested in medicine.
Optometry is a vibrant, evolving profession and the opportunity of business involvement and ownership adds another dimension of career challenge for both women and men willing to take it on. For women balancing work and family responsibilities, optometry offers a very flexible vocation, with part time and weekend work readily available if required.
Question: You became the second ever female National President at Optometry Australia; how does this feel?
Kate Gifford: I believe that my varied professional experience, age and gender are an asset to leadership of the Optometry profession. I'm the youngest ever National President, and being on the cusp of Generation X and Y, believe I bring an understanding of the growing female and under 40 demographic of our profession. I have been a Director on the Optometry Australia Board for the past four years before becoming National President, and have been a Director and past‐President of the Optometry Queensland and NT Board since 2005. While both my age and gender have been immaterial in my involvement with both Optometry Australia and QLD/NT thus far, and I am enormously proud to have been a part of what we have achieved, I hope I am a signal to our profession and stakeholders of the evolving, collegiate and communicative organisation Optometry Australia aims to be as we lead, engage and promote Optometry.
Question: Can you explain your role as National President at Optometry Australia?
Kate Gifford: Optometry Australia is the peak professional membership body for optometrists, representing over 90% of my colleagues. We lead, engage and promote optometry through supporting optometrists in their professional practice and representing the profession to government, stakeholders and the public. The National Board are the elected governors and strategists of OA, and as President I'm responsible for leading the Board through discussion and decision making processes at our meetings, along with providing the daily interface between the Board and our National CEO, Genevieve Quilty. Genevieve and her staff put our plans into action, and we are collectively responsible for best use of OA's resources and for its outcomes. Across the country we have another six boards, 40+ colleagues and 20+ staff in our State organisations who are just as passionate about leading the optometry profession. Along with previous experience, undertaking study through the Australian Institute of Company Directors has prepared me for this role.
Optometry Australia is the lead communicator, educator and representative both within and outside of the optometry profession, and it is my role to be the -face' of OA, along with our CEO and with the support of the Board.
Question: What advice do you have for women considering a career in this field?
Kate Gifford: Optometry offers an opportunity to help people with their sight, arguably our most valuable sense. An aspiring young woman or man looking at their career options is likely to want to seek a meaningful career, which optometry provides. When writing about what makes for meaningful work, best-selling author Malcolm Gladwell says there are three key ingredients. The first is autonomy – you have a role in deciding what you do every day. Being a health professional provides and demands clinical autonomy in managing your patients. The second is complexity – your work must be an intellectually stimulating challenge, engaging both your mind and your imagination. Every day I'm confronted with clinical puzzles and I enjoy the detective work. Continuing to question your knowledge and investing your energy in ongoing education means you're unlikely to get bored. The final key ingredient to a meaningful career is a connection between effort and reward. As a clinical optometrist you achieve something for an individual patient many times a day. In the health arena, reward for effort is delivered far beyond your wage or title.
Interview by Brooke Hunter