Fergus Falls Optometric Center
"Family Eyecare from the Eyecare Family."
Dr. Mark D. Olmsted and Dr. Christine A. Olmsted
117 E. Lincoln Ave.
Fergus Falls, MN 56537
Appointments: 218-736-7555

Optometry’s Changing Face

Optometry’s Changing Face

By Dr. Mark D. Olmsted

About a year ago I attended my high school reunion. At the registration desk, I spoke to a classmate who is a nurse in my hometown. We had also taken a college science course together, when she was in pre-nursing and I was in pre-optometry. She told me that her daughter was considering optometry as a profession. I answered a few questions, but then she asked me, “Isn’t that woman’s work?”

At that moment a nuclear meltdown took place in the macho lobe of my testosterone-laden brain. I feared that my family would soon see a tabloid headline that read: “Eye-Doc Dies from Spontaneous Human Combustion at Reunion”. But I kept my cool. After all, it WAS a party and she had cared for my grandpa in his last years.

Was I in the Twilight Zone? I looked at my watch…yep…21st century, alright. I had just been a target of sexism... ‘backlash’ sexism at that! Because nurses have been dealing with gender bias for decades, I was truly amazed that an RN would have this attitude.

I then flashed back to 1972, when the 11 year old boys were pulled from class for the movie and ‘the talk’ regarding puberty. The linebacker-sized man who was the presenter introduced himself. “Hello, my name is John. I’m a nurse…” This ignited a wave of high-pitched laughter from a gym full of pre-teens. “YES….I am a MALE nurse…” came his booming response. I’m sorry to say that I laughed too.

After a deep breath, I explained to my old classmate that from the beginning optometry had been a predominantly male profession. During the ‘Golden Age of Optometry’ in the late 1940s there was a large output of eye doctors graduating every 6 months due to World War II veterans starting civilian careers.

I continued by telling her that I had once looked through many years worth of class photographs posted in the library of my optometry school. Those historical photos showed that female students were quite rare until the 1980s, when my class was about 20% women. By the time my wife Dr. Chris Olmsted graduated, the mix was about one-third female. Today, 60% of new optometrists are women. With the history lesson over, the nurse gave me a hug and we each went on to talk to the next old friend.

The optometric journals of 25 years ago would sometimes have some slanted editorials with concerns about how women would ‘change the profession’. There was cringe-inducing language regarding the ‘problem’ of childcare for optometrists when they became new mothers. How they would flat out quit or turn the profession into some sort of part-time mess. How ridiculous!

When my wife and I moved to Fergus Falls 22 years ago, she was the first full-time woman optometrist in the community. There were few female healthcare providers of ANY discipline back then. I was so concerned about bias, that I insisted her name be given top billing on our office window. Overall, it’s been a non-issue, but in the beginning there were some who assumed that she was my technician. That never went over well...

The current president of the American Optometric Association is the first female to hold that position in the 113 year history of the organization. At our recent state convention, I noticed that the MN doctors in attendance were roughly 30% women. Presently, two-thirds of the full-time optometrists in Fergus Falls are female.

Of course, gender plays no role in the complex problem solving skills required in eyecare or any other healthcare profession for that matter. I was just shocked to discover that there are still people who try to slap a masculine or feminine label on optometry.

Well, my next patient is ready. I guess I better get back to my ‘woman’s work’. I’ll have to get together with the few area male optometrists after hours some night. Maybe we can watch a Stallone marathon on Spike TV, while having a habanero eating contest and arm wrestle or something…