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HomeminewsUnconscious Bias: The Barrier to Women in Leadership

Unconscious Bias: The Barrier to Women in Leadership

Unconscious bias is the most significant barrier preventing women from moving into leadership in ophthalmology, according to Sydney’s Professor Stephanie Watson. Prof Watson was recently named one of the world’s 100 most influential ophthalmologists in the Ophthalmologist Power List 2021, alongside Professor Helen Danesh-Meyer from New Zealand.

Professor 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 (ORIA), Sydney. An academic eye surgeon, she is one of just three female professors out of 34 in Australia. She is also the mother of three young boys.

Prof Watson said forging a career in ophthalmology, “requires a lot of juggling”, the support of role models and the confidence to put yourself forward for opportunities that arise.

We need to be aware of unconscious bias and we need to challenge it. We need to give more people more opportunities

“There is pretty much an equal split of men and women going into medical school now – perhaps even more women than men, however when it comes to progressing to ophthalmology, the balance shifts and men move into the majority. It shifts again when it comes to the numbers of women ophthalmologists in leadership – we call it a leaky pipe.”

Indeed in the United States, where ophthalmology has the third highest female representation among surgical specialties, 72% of residency program directors and 90% of department chairs are male.1

“There are many factors causing the ‘leaks’,” says Prof Watson. “Women thinking about a career in ophthalmology have less female role models and mentors as the profession has a male majority. For some women, when they are thinking about training to become an ophthalmologist, they may also be contemplating a family. There may also be a lack of leadership opportunities; some leadership positions in ophthalmology are held long term. But a real problem is unconscious bias.

“We’re at a stage where people think that because there are women in ophthalmology, gender bias doesn’t exist. And because they don’t recognise the bias, they don’t measure it, and so the problem is perpetuated.”

Prof Watson said it will take a concerted effort, by men and women alike, to swing the pendulum and effect change.

“Yes, we need to encourage more women into ophthalmology and into leadership, however we also need to create opportunities for them.

“That means proactively, consciously inviting more women into advisory roles, to speak at conferences and write papers. We need to demonstrate to women that we value their opinions and their expertise. People who have achieved the career goals they set out to achieve need to consider stepping back to allow others to come through – it’s only when we do this that we will see more women stepping forward and more women being promoted into leadership roles.”

Of her own career, Prof Watson said she has faced many challenges, and continues to do so.

“I have always set out to do a good job, to do the right thing, bring well informed views to the table and to be seen as someone who should be chosen for leadership and advisory roles. I’ve really worked hard at building effective teams and delivering the ‘goods’.”

As Chair of the ORIA, Prof Watson is currently involved in re-organising the notfor- profit organisation for the future. “It’s a major challenge. I’ve employed a CEO with not-for-profit experience to assist me and we’re taking time to engage with stakeholder groups like RANZCO (the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Ophthalmologists).

“At the ORIA, we recently had a young Indigenous work experience student. He had a connection to his local ophthalmologist via a family member; eye research has benefits for many in the community! We hope his work experience provided him with new skills.”

On juggling family and career Prof Watson said, “I can’t always be at home for my sons, however I sometimes take them to the hospital with me, when I’m doing the ward rounds, so they can see the work I’m doing. I hope that they appreciate that I’m working to help people see and that this shapes them as people.”

For young women entering the profession of ophthalmology, Prof Watson advised, “Have a go. Volunteer. Put yourself out there, but make sure you value your time”.

But most importantly, she said her message is for both men and women already engaged in the profession. “We need to be aware of unconscious bias and we need to challenge it. We need to give more people more opportunities. When you need talent for a particular role, event or activity, don’t just contact the last person you worked with. Think more widely about the people who can provide the expertise you need – everyone needs to think about this. We need change, we need greater diversity, and we can’t afford to wait 50 years for it to happen.

“If we don’t provide the opportunities, the women who aspire to leadership will find they continuously come up against a glass ceiling and the glass will simply be too thick to break through.”


  1. Authorship Gender Composition In The Ophthalmology Literature From 2015 To 2019. Kalavar M, Watane A, Balaji N, Cavuoto KM, Vanner EA, Kuriyan A, Haller J,Sridhar J. Ophthalmology. 2021 Apr;128(4):617-619. doi: 10.1016/j. ophtha.2020.08.032. Epub 2020 Sep 2. PMID: 32890547; PMCID: PMC8005250.