A steadfast advocate for women in our field, the renowned Dr Daddi Fadel is the focus of this Women In Optometry feature. She’s navigated career challenges with resilience and self-belief, inspired by strong women—including her grandmother, to make invaluable inroads in clinical research and practice.

Read below to discover Dr Fadel’s insights and advice.

Hi Dr Fadel. You’re a renowned, highly respected clinical researcher and OD.

Tell us a bit about what you do and the impact it has.

I have over 25 years of experience as a clinician and am currently engaged in the research field. My expertise lies in specialty contact lenses, with a focus on the transformative potential of rigid lenses for addressing irregular corneas, ocular surface diseases, and orthokeratology treatments. By designing and customizing these lenses, I contribute to enhanced vision and overall patient health, providing customized care while embracing continuous learning and adapting to emerging technologies. 

Scleral lenses have become a profound passion, offering unique solutions for diverse ocular conditions. This dynamic area, alongside orthokeratology, drives my research, aiming to improve patients’ lives.  

My commitment expands to workshops conducted for EURSOCOLE, European School of Scleral Lenses, where I travel to teach and share knowledge about scleral lenses. This initiative aligns with my broader goal of advancing eye care and creating an inclusive environment. EUROSCOLE first appeared as a very ambitious and crazy project and finally showed to be very successful, inspiring people around the world, changing their practices, and contributing to ameliorating and saving patients’ lives. These workshops seem to have revolutionized the market of scleral lenses in Europe, the Middle East, Africa and Asia, and the industry related to them.  

Additionally, I extend my dedication beyond clinical work, addressing broader optometric challenges, including persistent gender disparities. I advocate for diversity, inclusivity, and equal opportunities in the field, striving for recognition based on talent and dedication rather than gender. 

Ultimately, my work aims to leave a lasting impact on individual patients and the optometric community. Through research, patient care, advocacy, and teaching, I contribute to the evolution of optometry, promoting inclusivity and responsiveness to the diverse needs of those seeking eye care. 

What inspired you to get into this area of optometry?

I initially entered the field of optics, but I felt a gap in my studies. Shifting to optometry, my interest in soft contact lenses flourished. However, I reached a point where their fitting became less challenging and exhilarating. This led me to concentrate on specialty contact lenses, specifically rigid corneal lenses, which intrigued me due to their utility in irregular corneas and orthokeratology treatments. To deepen my involvement, I immediately started designing my lenses and sent the specifications to labs for production. 

My journey took another turn as I delved into the dynamic realm of scleral lenses, sparking a profound passion for them. Currently, my true dedication lies in rigid lenses, corneal and scleral lenses, and orthokeratology lenses. 

How has the industry changed for women since you started out?

My observations during my travels have unveiled significant disparities in how the industry treats women, varying from one country to another. It is disheartening to witness the ongoing struggle within patriarchal cultures to fully recognize and accept professional women, especially those who are independent and competent.

In some countries, minimal progress has been achieved over the years. I continually receive numerous messages from recently graduated young women and those who have been part of the community for an extended period, seeking advice on navigating the challenges faced by women in the optometric field. These women consistently report encountering the same challenges I faced since my early years as an optometrist.

Despite the progress some other countries have made, it’s still common to see several meetings dominated by men. This ongoing trend highlights the need for greater inclusivity and diversity. Although efforts are being made to ensure fair treatment for everyone, the overrepresentation of men raises concerns about equal opportunities. It emphasizes the importance of working towards a space where everyone’s thoughts matter.

Achieving a balance between men and women and embracing diverse perspectives should be a primary focus for all of us. This motivated me to found GLOW, Global Ophthalmic Women, a platform aiming at providing support and empowerment for women navigating the complexities of the ophthalmic field. It is imperative that we continue working collectively to dismantle barriers and create an inclusive environment that values and uplifts the contributions of women in our field. 

What excites you most about your work, and what are the biggest challenges?

I find immense excitement in the transformative impact my work can have on people’s lives, whether through specialty contact lens practice and research or EUROSCOLE. Enhancing vision and contributing to overall patients’ health brings a deep sense of fulfillment. In my clinical practice, I consistently engaged in innovative problem-solving by thinking outside the box to address challenging cases. This provided me with a genuine source of excitement, as each instance became an opportunity to challenge myself and unleash creativity.

Additionally, I am particularly excited about traveling, meeting colleagues from different backgrounds and cultures, and learning from these experiences. However, the challenge lies in organizing and managing these travels, especially the long ones. Being away from family can also be emotionally challenging.

Another notable challenge involves addressing the psychological concerns of certain patients related to their ocular health.

In our practice, cultivating empathy is of paramount importance, as it plays a pivotal role in understanding and addressing the nuanced emotional aspects associated with patients’ eye health.

This entails navigating the delicate intersection of optometric care and the psychological well-being of individuals, acknowledging that eye health is not merely a physical aspect but often intertwined with emotions and perceptions.

Which of your attributes contribute to success at work?

The key attributes contributing to success in work revolve around resilience, a strong sense of self-determination, and self-respect. I firmly believe in the power of resilience, self-confidence, and perseverance, which fuels constant hard work and commitment to achieving goals.  

Equally important is the recognition of the impact of one’s surroundings on professional endeavors. A positive work environment, characterized by optimism and encouragement, plays a pivotal role in fostering creativity, enhancing productivity, and ultimately contributing to overall job satisfaction. This positive atmosphere fuels individual growth and creates a collective energy that propels the entire team toward success. 

In the face of challenges, maintaining a resilient and optimistic mindset is paramount. These attributes, when combined, empower individuals to navigate obstacles, stay laser-focused on their objectives, and emerge stronger on the other side of adversity. The ability to channel setbacks into opportunities for growth becomes a driving force behind sustained success. 

Furthermore, the support of family is invaluable in this journey. The encouragement and backing from loved ones provide a crucial anchor during challenging times, offering both emotional support and a sense of belonging that contributes significantly to an individual’s overall well-being and professional resilience.  

What are you most proud of in your career to date?

Making a difference in people’s lives, and sometimes even saving them, is what makes me proudest. Recognizing the effectiveness of specialized tools like scleral lenses, I became convinced that these solutions should be accessible to more practitioners, enabling them to assist their patients comprehensively. While patients visited my practice from various countries, financial constraints and visa issues sometimes hindered others from seeking help for their vision problems.  

In the spirit of extending assistance to more patients, especially those facing financial and visa challenges, I took a proactive approach. If they couldn’t come to my practice, I decided to bring my expertise to them. This realization led to the establishment of EUROSCOLE. It involves educating local practitioners, enabling them to effectively assist and follow up with patients in their communities.  

My joy and fulfillment stem not only from directly aiding patients but also from the knowledge-sharing process with practitioners. By imparting my experience and knowledge, I strive to create a ripple effect, fostering a community of professionals committed to making a positive impact on the lives of those they serve. 

Who are your female role models and how have they influenced your career?

My grandmother serves as my female role model. During her era, societal expectations dictated that women should adhere to the expectations of their families and husbands, a mindset that persists even in some Western countries today. However, she defied these norms by demonstrating remarkable independence. She faced no issues despite occasionally spending days away from her husband and children. In her absence, my grandfather adapted, learning to cook, manage household chores, and become independent. Remarkably, my grandmother felt no guilt about this; it was a normal part of her life, and she cared little about societal judgments. As my mother pursued her career, my grandmother also adeptly balanced her time between us and my grandfather. The family model she created, characterized by mutual respect for each other’s freedom, independence, and unconditional love, became a profound source of inspiration for me. 

My grandmother embodied strength, empathy, truthfulness, and resilience. Fearlessly challenging authority, she had an innate ability to convince others of her convictions. Her encouragement to embrace my true self, disregard others’ opinions, and cultivate strength and resilience has left an enduring impact on me and my career. When faced with challenges, I often reflect on how she would respond, drawing inspiration from her example. 

You’re a steadfast advocate for women and for women in optometry.

Why is it important to you to empower the next generation of women in optometry?

Reflecting on my own journey, I faced substantial challenges as a women optometrist, enduring public bullying from both men and women in the field. Some of these hurtful comments and videos still linger online, serving as a testament to the difficulties I navigated. Each instance was a struggle, made even more poignant by the fact that my children bore witness to the harsh words directed at their mother by fellow professionals. 

Observing my children’s empathy and, at times, embarrassment for me, I realized it was crucial to shift the narrative. Instead of feeling ashamed, I encouraged them to understand that the true embarrassment lay with those who engaged in bullying and those who remained silent, never offering support. This realization became a turning point, leading me to stand tall against the aggression. I explained to my children that the aggression was fueled by the perceived threat of my strength. Those who sought to diminish me did so because they recognized the power within.  

Witnessing pervasive bullying against women in certain countries motivated me to take a stand, providing the support and empowerment I lacked during my own challenging times. I observed how this intimidation prevented many talented women from showcasing their excellence, relegating them to the shadows behind men. It became evident that this cycle needed to be broken, allowing women to step forward without fear of aggression. I strongly believe that ending this cycle is essential for the well-being of everyone involved — our patients, our children, and the future generation. 

Additionally, there is a general growing trend of women entering the field of optometry. An article from Optometry Times on April 7, 2017, discusses this shift, citing information from the AOA Focus. The article notes that the percentage of women in our profession has been steadily increasing and is expected to continue rising. In 2014, 38% of optometrists and 39 percent of AOA members were women. Presently, 65 to 75% of optometry students are women, according to the “The Future is Women” article from March 2019 in AOA Focus. However, despite this significant presence of women in optometry, leadership roles are still predominantly occupied by men. This imbalance is a source of frustration for women who work tirelessly yet face fewer career opportunities solely because of their gender.  

Young women should be determined to continue to challenge and dismantle patriarchal norms. I am unwavering in my dedication to support and uplift them in every possible way. Breaking free from patriarchal constraints is a collective effort, and we all should contribute our part to create a more inclusive and empowering environment for women in optometry.  

What advice would you give to women starting their career?

My advice to women starting their careers is to be resilient, believe in their capabilities, and seek mentorship from experienced female professionals who can provide guidance and support. Building a strong professional network is crucial for sharing experiences and insights. Additionally, advocating for oneself and others, along with actively participating in initiatives promoting gender equality, can contribute to positive change within the profession.  

Remember, your contributions are valuable, and by standing together, we can foster a more inclusive and equitable environment for everyone in the optometric community.