SpaMedica celebrates International Women’s Day by putting the spotlight on Professor Christine Purslow, Director of Optometry

International Women’s Day strives for a gender equal world – one free of bias, stereotypes, and discrimination, where difference is valued and celebrated.

To mark the day, in this special interview we speak to Professor Christine Purslow, SpaMedica’s Director of Optometry.

With 30 years’ experience in the eye health industry, Christine shares her insight on optometry as a rewarding trade, her four stages of career progression and why she felt let down by the reality of trying to ‘have it all’.

Tell us about your career journey so far…

I am a trained optometrist and started my career at the coalface, within clinical practice in hospitals and on the high street. A decade in, I decided to work one day a week supervising students at Aston University and discovered that I really loved teaching.

At that time, you needed to do a PhD to become a lecturer, and as I started that, I discovered I loved research too. And so began my rewarding career in academia. Over the next 16 years I held roles at Aston University, Cardiff University and then Plymouth. I supervised 17 PhD students through to completion, held lecturing and director roles and undertook and released clinically significant research on subjects spanning eye health, including dry eye disease and contact lens topography.

Once I felt I’d reached the top of my game in academia, I took another leap of faith – this time into the pharmaceutical industry. For the next seven years my eye health expertise focused me in another direction – as head of medical affairs for Thea Pharmaceuticals.

In August 2020, I came full circle and returned to clinical operations – this time within the independent sector and in a more strategic role, as Director of Optometry at SpaMedica.

I still retain Honorary Professor roles with Cardiff, Aston, and Plymouth Universities.

And your position at SpaMedica?

When the opportunity arose to join SpaMedica, I wasn’t actively looking for a new job, but I knew the company – its great ambitions and strong reputation. I seized the chance to join.

I’m really enjoying being part of the leadership team and supporting the company’s fantastic growth. Over the past 18 months, we’ve increased from 25 optometrists to over 70 and I’m focused on maintaining the clinical excellence of the team – supporting through training, welfare, and personal development. It’s very reminiscent of my mentoring and coaching positions I’ve had in the past – which I love. And I get to work with eyes again – I don’t cover many clinics, but I’m still a registered optometrist and I’m enjoying treating patients.

What does a profession in optometry mean to you?

It means potential. Optometrists at heart are fantastic communicators and fantastic scientists. There are so many ways they can apply themselves – writing, sales, development – as well as examining two eyes in a testing room.

There’s also great flexibility and the opportunity to learn, particularly at SpaMedica. Our team can work round their families and other commitments while being trained to the highest levels through our CPD programme.

This is also an exciting time for the industry; Covid has been a catalyst for change. Optometrists are now better recognised for the skills they have and the invaluable role they played in triaging emergency care during the pandemic.

Has your gender ever held you back?

Never in optometry or academia, perhaps occasionally in industry. The only time it was ever really noticeable was in the pharmaceutical industry, which can be dominated by men in suits, but even then, that didn’t impact my day job. I’ve learnt that the emotional intelligence women frequently bring to the workplace is a great asset.

Combining parenthood with work was a big shock in the beginning. I’m from the generation where girls were starting to be championed into science and technology professions and teachers were promising us that we could ‘have it all.’ As I became a mother, I realised that just couldn’t be true, and I felt a little deceived.

I think we need to be more honest with women and men about how hard it is when you have a family; how priorities need to be made and that some things will take second place. Some of the expectations put on parents, particularly women, to ‘have it all’ are not only unrealistic, but potentially damaging too.

What would your advice be to others starting out in the optometry industry?

Put yourself out there and take risks! I have learnt that you should always try new things – you may have one goal in mind but then realise you enjoy something else. I’ve always relished a new challenge and ‘wriggled’ around in roles – and I’ve always had my trade as an optometrist to fall back on.

Finally, what is the favourite part of your job?

Being part of someone’s journey and seeing them succeed and be happy with what they do. That could be an optometrist working their way up the career ladder, a student progressing through their learning and development or even a patient after successful cataract surgery.

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