“What does the future of Wal-Mart/Sam’s Club optometry look like?” That was the question posed for this year’s Wal-Mart and Sam’s Club Project Foresight Scholarship competition. The company was asking for submissions from optometry students around the country on how they can become a better workplace to attract millennials. Rachel Simpson and Kate Hamm, then third year students at the University of Missouri St. Louis, weren’t sure their entry was anything close to what the company was looking for, but they were passionate about their mission: to close the wage gap in optometry. That passion brought home the grand prize of a $15000 scholarship.
“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.”
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.”
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!”