Students at Nova Southeastern University's College of Optometry working with iPads in the classroom. (The image is from the school's website.)

For what is believed to be the first time, the percentage of women who entered North American schools and colleges of optometry this fall increased to the 70 percent plateau, Women In Optometry reported this month. The publication cited data from the 25 optometry schools surveyed for its report, which also found an overall increase of 28 students in optometry schools this fall compared with a year ago.

The fall’s female-male enrollment percentage was an increase of only 1 percent compared with last year’s 69 percent, but the round number “70” does seem to indicate a milestone of sorts. (Women In Optometry has a complete breakdown of enrollment at all of the North American optometry schools here. The data indicate a high point of 78 percent women at the University of Montreal School of Optometry, and a low percentage number of 54 percent at Midwestern University Arizona College of Optometry.)

According to the Association of Schools and Colleges of Optometry (ASCO), the percentage of optometry school enrollees who were women began a notable growth trajectory in the 1980s, climbing from 19 percent of the new student group in 1980 to 44 percent by 1989. However, it was the 1992-93 school year that turned out to be a pivotal year for optometry, when for the first time women enrollees outnumbered men for the first time, according to a post on the ASCO site earlier this year by Aurora Denial OD, FAAO. (Dr. Denial is chair of the primary care department at the New England College of Optometry.)

“Several of the barriers identified in the 1970s were still present in the 1980s,” she wrote. “However, women in this decade did benefit from fading stereotypes regarding what careers they should pursue.”

While the 70 percent number is a high-water mark, at least for now, Women In Optometry editor Marjolijn Bijlefeld said she is not sure that the percentage will go that much higher. “And this hasn't been an actual steady uphill shift,” she told VMAIL Weekend. “Some years are higher and some are lower, although this is the highest since we've been tracking it. But it really depends on the candidate pool [of overall college students] that year.”

So, the 70 percent mark of female-to-male optometry school enrollees may or may not represent a milestone. But at least it makes for an interesting talking point. With this in mind, VMAIL Weekend asked executives in the optical community (ODs and others) how they view this development. Following are the responses we received to the following questions:

1) Is the 70 percent threshold significant in any way?
2) Will this percentage shift will continue for the next few years?
3) Are there any underlying factors here that will have future implications for the profession?

Barbara Horn, OD
President, American Optometric Association


The shift in the profession’s demographics toward women has been occurring gradually and will continue to grow. In fact, data shows female optometry students have outnumbered males for at least the past decade. This latest milestone comes at an auspicious time as the opportunities for optometry are at an all-time high, and the influx of more women voices affords us the potential to truly effect change.
As more women choose optometry, we need more women to help move it forward—particularly while men still outnumber women as practicing doctors of optometry. Fortunately, we are seeing an increasing number of women stepping up to fill leadership roles in societies, schools, practice ownership and more.
The need to advance that trend has never been greater, which is why I’m passionate about invigorating students and young ODs and keep them involved in organized optometry. There is an opportunity to get them informed to help increase public awareness and contribute to the professional standing of the profession. Which is why AOA made it a priority to hold board meetings on campuses of optometry schools and colleges, working directly with them to include the faculty and show students the value of involvement. We are hitting as many schools as we can, to get them enthusiastic about the AOA’s opportunities for education, networking, career and profession advancement.

Maria Sampalis, OD
Founder of the Corporate OD Alliance (CODA)

There will be a dramatic change in the industry. We will see more female ODs. It is a great profession. We [also] will see more female leaders and new mindsets. Underlying factors? I think we will see a lot of female ODs working together in a practice setting to be able to balance work and life. I think a lot of the younger female ODs will consider corporate optometry as an entrance point and explore other roles as life changes.

Richard Edlow, OD
The Eyeconomist


I anticipate the male/female breakdown staying around 30 percent / 70 percent. The significance is that, typically, women work 80 percent of a full time equivalent. This impacts the supply/demand characteristics. The number of women in optometry has grown [over the years] as it provides such a great work-life balance.

Mark Wright, OD
Professional Editor, Review of Optometric Business

The 70 percent number shows that optometry is an attractive career for women. Health care, in general, is going through some very interesting changes. The next three to five years will bring more changes into eyecare than we've seen in the last 10 years. It appears to me that those changes will continue to make optometry attractive to women.

Mick Kling, OD
Impact Leadership

Women have been gradually gaining market share in our profession over the last 25 years, and have proven that they make great ODs. And I believe we will see this trend continue over the next decade. I have heard the argument that more women in the profession may lead to less private practice ownership. But I have met many women practice owners this past year in my travels and I don't get the sense that women are afraid to step into private practice. In fact, they are often more engaged with staff, more receptive to change and more progressive than many of our male colleagues.

Claude Labeeuw
Keplr Vision - SVP Business Development

It is great to see that the enrollment is up which is great for eyecare as there is an ever increasing need for ODs going forward. I am not surprised about the high percentage of females. This has been happening for a while, especially at UC Berkeley where I spent quite some time in the past.

Barbara Barclay
President, RightEye

It makes perfect sense that women are drawn to the field of optometry. Many women want to have time for a family and may want to work part time for a few years, but are not typically content to “stay home” for 20 years and then re-enter the work place.
Women have always been drawn to patient care and the practice of medicine, but the challenges of becoming a medical doctor—11 to 14 years of schooling and associated debt; lack of life balance; and changes in the U.S. healthcare system—are daunting regardless of gender. Optometry is a great option that offers more flexible scheduling and a quicker route to practice.
Optometry really is a great path for women offering a combination of flexibility and an opportunity for business-minded women who do not want to wait for a promotion in a bigger corporation or even a big hospital. Because of the advantages, I would not be surprised if the percentage continues to grow a few more points; however, I don’t see it going beyond 75 percent.

Bill Gerber
Founder & CEO
Omg! Optical Marketing Group and ContentLinq

I just spoke on optical merchandising at the Southern California College of Optometry at Marshall Ketchum University last month and was amazed at the very high percentage of female students. I see this new generation of females as entrepreneurial, creative and very determined. I see a positive effect on the industry as a result of a majority of female ODs being in practice. Inherently, women are more caring and nurturing and it’s reflected in their patient care. This gives people a very good feeling about the profession. Overall I see it as a major positive.

Roger Mummert
Director of Content
Review of Optometric Business

Last week, a 36-year-old OD said that she never began to achieve her financial objectives until she stopped working for others and opened her own practice three years ago. Now her financial plan is falling in place and she loves building her own practice. Women not only dominate the educational front, but they already have taken their place among some of the most progressive and successful practitioners.