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Business & Profession Professional Development, Other

Doctor and Mother

I consider myself to be an ordinary ophthalmologist. I have been practicing for a long time and I have seen a great deal over the years. One basic thing I have noticed is that women ophthalmologists are not talked about as much as men. Sometimes they are not talked about at all. And though some of the old attitudes towards men and women have changed, certain social stereotypes are still in full force. Women are still expected to be mothers before everything else. But my love for my family has always been equal to my love of ophthalmology. My husband would probably disagree. 

Our home life has been built around my career. If there was an emergency, it took priority over everything else – and I think that’s true of a lot of physicians, not just ophthalmologists. To be successful, you need to have a support system. Mine was my husband, who was a parent, bodyguard, assistant and partner – the ‘wind beneath my wings’ person who allowed me to be the ‘star’ of the family.  It’s taken for granted that the wife of the physician will take on that role, but not many men can do it.  It’s too bad his name isn’t on my 35 years certificate from the American Academy of Ophthalmology, because he earnt it too.

Now, like many others approaching retirement age, I am currently working part-time, which is a wonderful transition. It allows the practice to continue to have the expertise and manpower of the ophthalmologist, while allowing the ophthalmologist to have a life outside of the practice. And that’s important to most of us at some point in our careers.

Medicine in general is so overwhelmingly time-consuming, there is very little time for anything else. If a woman does have a husband and a family, it is all she can do to combine those into her life – which is why you only seem to hear about women who start new careers after their kids have left home (there’s simply no time before that!). Those who have outside interests are exceptional; it seems to me that between ophthalmology and any family duties, most women neglect themselves. Everything else comes first – and you come last. 

I know that is something that won’t change in my lifetime. Women are still going to be the ones who have babies and they’re still going to want to spend time with their families. But if we look at specialties where there are very large numbers of female physicians, such as pediatrics, OB-GYN and psychiatry, you find that they are a lot more mom – and women – friendly; they are much better at offering childcare, and the provision of shared or part-time positions.

Now that half of our residents are women, hopefully the landscape of ophthalmology will change for the better.

I am hopeful for the future. Now that half of our residents are women, hopefully the landscape of ophthalmology will change for the better – and not just for women. Men need to have family time too. 

I remember starting my residency in 1977 and there only being two or three other women residents in the years above me. At the time, they had five paid training positions for each class. The chairman started offering one, sometimes two, of those positions – unpaid – to married women. The concept sounds hard to believe in 2018. The chairman was very traditional – and I’m being kind with that word – just like everyone else running the show in those days. But women couldn’t have progressed without that kind of support. In a strange way – sexist though he was – that chairman was the reason more women entered ophthalmology and, in turn, why there were more women mentors. Maybe it was an unexpected consequence of his actions, but it was a consequence nonetheless. And that’s worth remembering: for there to be change, you need the help of the oppressors. Someone needs to open up the door and let people in. Luckily, patients have always been very accepting of female physicians and their support has made a big difference, and will continue to in the future.

The next frontier will be achieving a more realistic attitude to work. I can only hope that a balanced workforce will help women – and men – have a more satisfying personal and professional life, without having to sacrifice so much of one for the other.

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About the Author
Phoebe Harkin

Associate Editor of The Ophthalmologist

I’ve always loved telling stories. So much so, I decided to make a job of it. I finished a Masters in Magazine Journalism and spent three years working as a creative copywriter before itchy feet sent me (back)packing. It took seven months and 13 countries, but I’m now happily settled on The Ophthalmologist, where I’m busy getting stuck into all things eyeballs.

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