April 13, 2017
4 min read

Leadership begins locally for women in ophthalmology

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Cynthia G. Mattox

Having a mentor and becoming involved in local organizations early can help more women assume leadership roles in ophthalmology and become mentors themselves later in their careers.

Cynthia G. Mattox, MD, FACS, president of the American Glaucoma Society and a trustee-at-large on the American Academy of Ophthalmology’s board of trustees, said her desire to serve in a leadership role in the field was stoked when she became involved with the New England Ophthalmological Society early in her career.

“I think this is typical of those who get involved at a national level — they start at a local level. For me it was the New England Ophthalmological Society, which provides a series of five educational meetings a year. I got involved in the program committee, and later when I expressed interest in health policy, my mentors and local contacts connected me with people in the Academy. It’s about getting involved at the local level, making contact with people who are involved in the activities that interest you and then following through. That is how it progressed naturally for me,” she said.

Mentorship is valuable

Ophthalmology currently has a similar ratio of men to women joining the specialty, but men still outnumber women in the field due to more men becoming ophthalmologists in decades past, Bonnie A. Henderson, MD, who takes the reins as president of the American Society of Cataract and Refractive Surgery at the annual meeting in May, told Ocular Surgery News.

Because of this phenomenon, there are fewer older and more experienced women to serve as mentors for young women in ophthalmology, she said.

“I believe it is important to be available to share our experiences and help educate the younger physicians, men and women. I am humbled by the opportunity to serve an organization such as ASCRS. I hope this role will allow me to advocate for gender equality in health care fields,” she said.

For the remainder of the year after Henderson begins her term, three high-profile ophthalmology organizations will, for the first time at the same time, be led by women. In January, Mattox assumed her role as president of AGS and Cynthia A. Bradford, MD, began her term as president of the American Academy of Ophthalmology.

Get involved early

Mattox became involved with the AGS when she was elected as a member at large in 2008. After stints as the society’s patient care committee chair and secretary, she became president-elect of AGS in 2015 and is now the president.

Her interest in leadership and service began during her glaucoma fellowship at Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary and Ophthalmic Consultants of Boston. Her interactions with ophthalmologists dedicated to teaching and service, such as Tom Hutchinson, MD, Bob Bellows, MD, David Epstein, MD, and Joel Schuman, MD, helped cultivate her interest in volunteering and service to the specialty.


“It’s more about exploring what your interests and ultimately your passion will be, then connecting with individuals who have done the same things that you might be interested in to understand what’s involved and how they have shaped their leadership roles. An important mentor for me in that regard was Bill Rich, MD. There are mechanisms for how you would volunteer for a particular path at both local and national levels. I would strongly encourage getting involved locally in advocacy, health policy or education through your state society or through a university-sponsored educational program,” she said.

Henderson said having a mentor early on in her career helped her navigate the specialty. She said David Campbell, MD, was an adviser to her during medical school, and his “passion for the field and intellectual curiosity were infectious.” After completing a rotation with him, she knew she wanted to be an ophthalmologist.

Bonnie A. Henderson

Become a mentor

Henderson’s interactions with Campbell and his support encouraged her to become a mentor to younger ophthalmologists when she joined the faculty at Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary.

“My main responsibility was to teach the residents how to perform cataract surgery. Although it was challenging, it was also very rewarding to see the transformation from a novice surgeon to a competent one. I enjoyed the educational mission of academic medicine. When I joined a private practice, I wanted to continue contributing to the field somehow. Joining ASCRS has given me the opportunity to do that. It is an amazing resource for anterior segment specialists to pursue continuing education, to network and to work together to advocate for our field,” she said.

Her career with ASCRS began when she first served on several committees, which allowed her to work with the staff and leadership of the organization. What sets ASCRS apart from other societies, she said, is its meritocracy.

“The leaders of the organization all came through the ranks and have served in a variety of roles within the organization. David Karcher, the executive director of ASCRS, is one of the main reasons for the success of the organization. He has been there since the beginning and has helped shape the culture as a can-do organization that is high on accomplishments and low on ego,” she said.

Remember the patients

Ophthalmology is an important specialty for both men and women, Henderson said, because ophthalmologists can affect a person’s life by restoring one of the most important senses. It has the unique combination of surgical treatments with medical long-term care, and there is a high job satisfaction among colleagues, which explains why the match rate into an ophthalmology residency program remains so competitive, she said.


“It’s wonderful to see so many women in leadership and on the podium more and more. It’s very encouraging, but it’s not the only agenda. It’s about serving the profession and serving our patients. I think those of us in leadership try not to lose sight of that. It’s our main goal, serving the profession and our patients,” Mattox said. – by Robert Linnehan

Disclosures: Henderson and Mattox report no relevant financial disclosures.

Editor's note: This article has been updated to include information on terms of service for the women leaders of AAO, ASCRS and AGS.