Women in Focus: United Optometrists Association

8:54 PM

When Rachel Simpson and Kate Hamm entered the Wal-Mart and Sam’s Club Project Foresight Scholarship competition, they weren’t sure that their idea was exactly what the company had in mind.  The topic? “What does the future of Wal-Mart/Sam’s Club optometry look like?” The company was asking for submissions on how they can become a better workplace to attract millennials and grow for the future as both an employer of optometrists, and as a preferred practice location for patient care. 

Simpson and Hamm, then third year students at University of Missouri St. Louis, entered the $15,000 scholarship competition with a focus on what they saw as one of the biggest issues young graduates face when entering the marketplace: discrimination in pay and workplace equality between genders and ethnicities. 

“I read Women In Optometry's article "The Income Gap: Why are Women Earning Less?" and I couldn't get it out of my head,” Simpson said. “That article said the gender wage gap in optometry is more than 18%, which is pretty shocking since most optometry students are female. I told my friends that the wage gap in optometry is about to be our problem; no one is going to care about this more than we do, and no one is going to fix it unless we make them.”
“Looking at race and gender specifically, it showed that some female optometrists are being shorted as much as $40,000 a year compared to their male counterparts. When I heard that and thought about it and looked around and realized how even my classmates were going to be affected, I just thought, ‘No. That’s not okay with me.’”
They were already working hard on raising awareness of the wage gap in optometry, founding the United Optometrists Association at UMSL with a group of 8 students in January 2016. The numbers quickly grew to 55 student members at UMSL alone, with steps in place to collaborate with existing clubs or found new chapters at optometry schools across the country.

How are they tackling their goal of not just closing the wage gap, but achieving workplace equality in optometry? “Each semester, we start with a brainstorming meeting where all our members come up with ideas for how to forward the mission of the UOA. Right now, that's the UOA's greatest impact: getting future optometrists thinking of ways to close the wage gap and be better future employers. We need to always be looking for opportunities to take action to close the wage gap.”

Kate Hamm and Rachel Simpson, UMSL College of Optometry '18

Their first year as a club was focused on how to approach the wage gap from the initial job offer process. “We read that a person can fall into the wage gap starting with their very first salary at their very first job. We can learn to negotiate, if that would help close the wage gap. So that's the action we took. We asked ODs to share with us copies of job offers they'd received (with all the personal information removed) so that we could get used to seeing contracts and offers. We need to see these documents as students so that we know what is standard and what to ask for. We held a contract negotiation seminar with Dr. Mark Phebus, where we learned what parts of a job offer are open to negotiation.”

“When Kate and I entered the Walmart Project Foresight scholarship competition, the prompt was "how can Walmart attract millennial optometrists?" Which doesn't on its face seem like an opportunity to argue for equality. But that's what Kate and I did. We argued that millennials care about the wage gap in optometry, so if you close the wage gap you attract millennials. We made specific recommendations that have been shown to close the wage gap in other professions- like not allowing negotiations for starting salary so that everyone starts on equal footing; encouraging all ODs (male, female, and non binary) to take full advantage of their paid time off; and setting up a system to allow ODs to seamlessly substitute for one another, so that a business doesn't falter when the doctor takes time off for medical or maternity leave. With Walmart, we saw an opportunity to tell a major employer of optometrists what we want them to do to close the wage gap. They listened to us and said that the actions we recommended were do-able for them, and we won the scholarship. Winning is nice, but what's nicer is that it brings attention to the wage gap. We want everyone in the UOA to be looking for opportunities to shape the conversation. Make your own opportunities and make the most of them. I hope that the UOA will motivate optometry students and optometrists to take action in the interest of equality.” 

When we graduate and become ODs, we'll keep working to make optometry more equal. We have some ideas for what that will look like, but it's hard to be sure until we really get there. Since the founding member so the UOA don't graduate until 2019, it's time for us to start thinking of how to better utilize OD members in addition to student members. We'd like to work with current ODs to come up with a set of recommendations for promoting equality within one's own workplace, as well as how to advocate for workplace equality within our profession."

How Can You Get Involved?
All ODs (not just students!) can visit unitedopt.org and read up about the wage gap. “You don't have to be a woman to be affected by the wage gap, so you don't have to be a woman to join the UOA,” explains Simpson.  They especially would appreciate If optometrists would be willing to share job offers or contracts with personal and identifying information removed so that students can get more comfortable looking at optometric contracts before they sign their own. “Students need to know what ODs are being offered so that we know what to ask for and don't undervalue ourselves and contribute to the wage gap. We need to better understand the realities you're facing in the workplace. What are you seeing? What changes would you like to see? What can we do to make your workplace more equal? We would love to talk with you!”

Want more about the mission of United Optometrists Association?  I got a chance to interview Rachel and Kate for Defocus Media!

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