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The theme for International Women’s Day (IWD) in 2024 is ‘Invest in women: Accelerate progress’. Held on 8 March each year, Optometry Australia harnesses IWD annually to highlight the important conversation of gender equality with our members, over half of whom identify as women, within the context of optometry.

From booking her first eye appointment at the age of 17, to now leading the charge as Professional Development Manager at Specsavers Australia & New Zealand (ANZ), Michelle Du’s career has been a whirlwind of excitement, achievements and growth.

Optometry Australia sat down with Michelle to discuss her career to date, the challenges that women may face as optometrists, how she maintains work-life balance and her tips for young graduates trying to find their footing in the industry.

What has been your optometry journey to date? Why did you choose optometry?

I remember near the end of high school, dreading the question, “What do you want to do?” I had no clue, but knew I liked helping people and teaching. Then at the age of 17, I booked my first eye test appointment. The experience was so pleasant that I tried to imagine myself as an optometrist one day. What interested me most was understanding the scope of practice beyond just prescribing glasses – the impact and importance of eye health care.

After graduating in 2016 from Deakin University with a Bachelor of Science/Master of Optometry, I joined Specsavers as a graduate optometrist. I was drawn to Specsavers’ structured and supportive Graduate Program.

Post my graduate years, I continued to work for Specsavers across a few different Victorian stores, focusing on my own networking and professional development. Like many, it was during COVID that I was confronted with thoughts of what I wanted to do next – what was my next challenge? Those thoughts soon turned into reality and ultimately led to my current role as Professional Development Manager ANZ at Specsavers, which I commenced in early 2022. In this dynamic role, I lead the development and implementation of training and development that supports optometrists in providing better care for patients.

What has been a highlight of your career so far?

A special highlight was leading and hosting the annual Specsavers Clinical Conference. A few months into my current role, I was charged with planning and delivering this annual clinical conference. Like a lot of things in life, I jumped straight in and learned along the way.

After months of preparation, when the conference day finally came, despite all the nerves and excitement, I was extremely proud of myself, my team and all those who supported to help deliver a fantastic conference. Last year we delivered our first-ever hybrid conference in Sydney which saw nearly 1000 optometrists register.

What advice would you give optometrists navigating the early stages of their career?

My advice would be to remain deeply engaged in the profession by fostering a sense of curiosity. Focus on growing both clinically and professionally and building professional networks. Embrace a proactive mindset. Opportunities may not always present themselves – you need to seek them out. Be willing to step out of your comfort zone, take on new challenges, and say ‘yes’ to opportunities that come your way. All of this helps position you for a long, successful, and fulfilling career.

Who has invested in you?

My journey has been shaped by meaningful investments from many people. Firstly, my parents have been unwavering pillars of support, investing not only in my education but also in nurturing my confidence and resilience.

I’m also grateful to my early mentors at Specsavers who played a crucial role in my development, facilitating a smooth transition from student life to full-time optometry. This supportive environment still fosters continuous learning and growth for me. In the past year, I’ve dedicated nearly 100 hours of development through the Emerging Leaders program, which focuses on enhancing building business knowledge and leadership skills. As part of the program, I completed a Mini MBA (Master of Business Administration) with the Australian Institute of Management. Key highlights of the program have been building new connections with peers and senior leaders, along with honing crucial capabilities essential for success in my current role and potential future leadership positions.

The several other mentors I’ve had over the years whose guidance, advice, and belief in my potential have been invaluable in not only propelling my career but inspiring me to pay it forward.

How have you invested in yourself?

I’ve actively invested in myself by prioritising professional development and attending training sessions to help me become a better manager and leader. I seek growth opportunities, even if I feel outside my comfort zone. This self-investment has enhanced my capabilities and helped me contribute more effectively to my team and organisation.

What do you think are the main obstacles for female optometrists in progressing their careers?

One of the main obstacles women face generally is how to continue to progress professionally, whilst also supporting a family. Once they decide to put their careers on hold to have children, they later face the challenge of navigating the return to work.

A significant number of optometrists are young females. So, we need to focus on empowering women to develop personally and professionally, as well as support them with flexible work models to stay in the workforce after having children – so they can continue to earn, learn and lead.

As a busy woman, how do you prioritise self-care and maintain a healthy work life balance?

Maintaining a healthy work-life balance is sometimes easier said than done. In my role, setting clear boundaries and sticking to them is crucial for knowing when to step away from the computer. Prioritising time off and self-care is not only good for my mental health, but it also helps me bring my best self to work. I find joy in simple activities like spending time with family and friends, being active outside, watching a movie or listening to a podcast. Embracing moments of doing nothing is also a valid part of my self-care routine.

Can you recall a moment in your career where you faced self-doubt or imposter syndrome? 

Yes! I think many people can relate when I say that my fear of failure fuels my self-doubt. Despite my accomplishments, I found myself questioning whether I am truly capable of meeting expectations. What makes this even harder for my generation is that we are good at sharing the highlights on social media, which leads to comparison and the assumption that no one else is struggling internally, when in fact, we are all trying just to figure things out.

Imposter syndrome is a common challenge for me and many professionals and it’s often a byproduct of pushing too hard outside of comfort zones. In those moments, I’ve learned to acknowledge my feelings, reflect on my achievements, and most importantly talk about it and seek support from colleagues.

How do you deal with the challenges in your career?

Moving from a more traditional optometrist role to working in my current corporate position challenged and stretched me in many ways. Although, at times it is confronting, I know that without challenge there is no growth. I am grateful for the time, support and investment from Specsavers in helping me develop in my career and I am thankful that each day at work, I get to learn something new.

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