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Sole Australian among world’s top 100 female ophthalmologists

The Save Sight Institute’s Professor Stephanie Watson has been recognised as one of the world’s top 100 female ophthalmologists.

She is the only Australian to make the 2021 Power List of the Top 100 Women in Ophthalmology, a first-of-its-kind list released by The Ophthalmologist magazine that celebrates the impact women have had on clinical practice, research, education and industry.

Watson is head of the corneal research group at The University of Sydney, Faculty of Medicine and Health; head of the cornea unit at Sydney Eye Hospital; and chair of the Ophthalmic Research Institute of Australia.

Translating her research findings into two world-first therapies and developing the Save Sight Registries for corneal diseases to hold more than 30,000 visits from more than 600 patients from 82 clinicians worldwide, are among her proudest professional achievements.

Watson has also conducted 11 clinical trials (five as chief investigator) and trained 70 eyecare professionals (including 15 corneal fellows) and 25 researchers.

“Training these ‘next-generation eye experts’ is what I’m most proud of, as this has helped build a workforce with the skills needed to save sight and improve patient care into the future. Guiding emerging eye experts to fulfil their career and personal goals has been personally rewarding,” Watson told The Ophthalmologist.

She said recognising the top 100 women in ophthalmology allows the celebration and validation of the excellence of the nominees’ work.

In the past, The Power List has been dominated by men, with women making up only 17% in 2020. Following years of underrepresentation, the 2021 Power List aims to redress the balance and highlight the accomplishments of women in the field.

“For female surgeons and scientists, there is an urgent need to celebrate success to help prevent the ‘leaky pipe’ in career progression that results in the loss of women from senior positions,” Watson said.

“In surgery and science, women hold fewer senior positions, apply for and win fewer awards, file fewer patents, and receive less grant funding than our male counterparts. As an academic eye surgeon, I am one of only three female professors out of 34 in Australia.”

The list also featured one New Zealander, Professor Helen Danesh-Meyer, from the New Zealand National Eye Centre, University of Auckland.

According to her nominators, Danesh-Meyer was the first female professor of ophthalmology and the youngest professor in a surgical specialty in New Zealand.

Eliminating ‘unconscious bias’

Watson said action is needed to make the field more diverse. Without it, she said unconscious bias will continue to inhibit change.

“The first thing we need to do is measure performance in terms of the diversity. The data on diversity can inform the conversation. Goals can be set based on the data and evidence-based research on what is needed to achieve diversity employed. Leaders need to communicate their goals for diversity and be held accountable for their delivery,” she said.

Watson said while there are many programs helping women navigate their careers, it is important the sector worked towards common goals.

“There is no point having women ready to lead to only find there are no doors to open,” she said.

“It sounds simple, but there are still many examples where diversity is still lacking and action needed. For example, I commonly see conferences where female speakers are in the minority, not present at all, or typically asked to speak on non-surgical subjects or as non-experts despite being excellent surgeons with considerable expertise. If all societies had gender diversity at conferences as a KPI then this could be identified and positive action taken. The conference organisers would be able to deliver a program that caters to the entire audience and provides inspiration to emerging leaders – a win-win.”

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