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Outstanding Female Leader in Ophthalmology | Jan/Feb '21

Outstanding Female Leader in Ophthalmology:
Ruth D. Williams, MD

Dr. Williams is a glaucoma consultant at and President Emeritus of the Wheaton Eye Clinic in Illinois.

Please share with us your background.

Like many firstborn daughters who become physicians, I decided to be a doctor in middle school. I grew up in an isolated, small, and wild town in Wyoming and had never even met a doctor, so I suspect that becoming a surgeon was the hugest dream I could summon. My main goal in high school was to not marry a rancher.

Being an ophthalmologist has shaped everything about my life by providing purpose, constant professional and personal growth, the greatest colleague-friends, and even my spouse. I’ve been a glaucoma consultant at Wheaton Eye Clinic for 29 years and led the group through an accelerated growth phase while serving as its president for 8 years. Our group made the collective decision to remain independent and then did the very hard work to position ourselves for success in a consolidating business environment. My partners taught me a lot about business, clinical ophthalmology, and how to be a better human.

My first leadership position was to represent the AAO as its delegate to the American Medical Association (AMA), a job that was remarkable at the time because there were very few women, and almost no young women, in the room. The AMA was boot camp for issues in medicine and in leadership, and I chaired the Surgical and Specialty Society and our ophthalmology section council.

The most fun and most rewarding work for me arises from various positions within the AAO. As Secretary for Member Services, I worked with an incredible team to increase roles for young ophthalmologists and develop programming for their unique interests. Of course, serving as AAO President in 2012 was meaningful, enjoyable, and humbling. Now, I’m the Chief Medical Editor of EyeNet Magazine, a job I love.

What is the focus of your recent research?

I’m not conducting research at this point in my career. I write an editorial each month for EyeNet and edit its content. I’ve focused on strategic planning and the governance of a large practice and learned a great deal about the business of ophthalmology. A large, independent ophthalmology practice is a bit of a laboratory experiment.

What has your experience been collaborating with industry?

I’ve had periods of time when I work with industry and periods of times when I don’t. Currently, I’ve chosen to have zero financial disclosures due to my position with EyeNet. In the past, I’ve learned so much from my colleagues when participating on advisory boards—plus, it’s fun. One of the best industry experiences I’ve had was filming a national broadcast with several esteemed glaucoma specialists. I acquired some new skills and really enjoyed it.

In your opinion, how is the role of women in ophthalmology evolving?

The obvious evolution is that there are more of us, which has several important effects. First, when there are many women ophthalmologists, we are reminded that women, like men, make diverse career and personal choices. Second, women have more role models than in the past. When I was a young ophthalmologist with a lot of ambition, plus a spouse and three little kids, it was so important to see a few other women navigating that, too; now, there are hundreds of us.

The most vital change is that we have many women in leadership positions. The more female leaders in our profession, the more this structure is normalized. It used to be a big deal that I was the second female president of the AAO, but now there have been two in a row—Anne L. Coleman, MD, PhD, and Tamara R. Fountain, MD. I look forward to the day when the gender of a leader doesn’t even elicit a comment. Eventually, we might need an honor called Outstanding Male Leader in Ophthalmology or simply Outstanding Leader in Ophthalmology, although I like this award for now.

What hurdles do you feel women in health care still face?

Fortunately, our hurdles are more subtle than in past decades. Now, many women become more aware of gender-based career challenges mid-career, and this is related to several issues. First, our educational systems have worked hard to establish standards and awareness regarding gender equality, but these guardrails have yet to be fully incorporated into the small business world, including private practice. Second, a woman’s career often has a different arc than the traditional career path, and someone who may not be as professionally active in their 30s or 40s might be super talented and super committed. Sometimes our brightest stars show up a little later in their careers.

Our hurdles can also be internal. It’s surprising to hear young female ophthalmologists talk about imposter syndrome (which men have too), but it’s a gigantic step forward that we now have language to describe this experience and pointers for addressing our doubts.

It’s downright distressing to know that sexual harassment still exists in our ophthalmology profession, and I hope we have the tools to eliminate it.

What advice can you offer to young female ophthalmologists who are still in training or just beginning their careers?

Study the people you respect. Because we continue to be shaped by our colleagues throughout our careers, choose to be around people you like and admire. Sometimes our greatest mentors aren’t even aware that they are teaching us.

Most importantly, when looking for a job, consider the culture of the organization and its core values. You need to work with people who share your values.

Don’t bother with guilt for it is a complete waste of precious energy. Sometimes we need to adjust our work-life balance (which I think is an over-simplified concept), but no one gets it just right. We are women of passion and commitment, which we bring to work and to our personal lives, and most of the time our children, spouses, and friends understand that. The kids are fine.

Can you propose a unique or creative idea that may help women in ophthalmic practices?

Take a class on how to develop negotiation skills and read two books on the topic. I took an interesting and easy online course on negotiation from Harvard Business School. Most women have more of the necessary skills than they realize.


  • American Academy of Ophthalmology (AAO) | 2012 President
  • American Medical Association (AMA)
  • American Glaucoma Society (AGS)
  • Chicago Glaucoma Society (CGS)
  • Chicago Ophthalmologic Society (COS)
  • DuPage County Medical Society
  • Illinois State Medical Society (ISMS)
  • National Board of Medical Examiners | Diplomat
  • Women in Ophthalmology (WIO)


  • Suzanne Veronneau-Troutman Award | 2012
  • America’s Top Doctors Award
  • AAO Senior Achievement Award | 2005
  • AAO Secretariat Award | 2003
  • AAO Honor Award | 1998
  • Top Doctors, Chicago Magazine | Multiple Years
  • Erdbrink Award, Pacific-Presbyterian Medical Center | 1989
  • William Osler Pathology Award, Rush Medical College | 1986
  • Alpha Omega Alpha, Rush Medical College | 1985
  • Honor Society, Wheaton College | 1981


  • Williams RD. Medicare Payments and physician sex in ophthalmology. JAMA Ophthalmol. 2017;135(3)213-214.
  • Prum BE Jr, Rosenberg LF, Gedde SJ, et al. Primary open-angle glaucoma Preferred Practice Pattern guidelines. Ophthalmology. 2016;123(1):P41-P111.
  • Prum BE, Rosenberg LF, Gedde SJ, et al. Primary open-angle glaucoma suspect Preferred Practice Pattern guidelines. Ophthalmology. 2016;123(1):P112-P151.
  • Mets MB, Brown A, Doan AP, et al. The ophthalmologist of the future. Arch Ophthalmol. 2012;130(9):1190-1194.
  • McDonnell PJ, Kirwan TJ, Brinton G, et al. Perceptions of recent ophthalmology residency graduates regarding preparation for practice. Ophthalmology. 2007;114(2):387-391.
  • Williams RD, Hoskins HD, Shaffer R. Trabeculodialysis for inflammatory glaucoma: a review of 25 cases. Ophthalmic Surg. 1992;23(1):36-37.
  • Pastor SA, Williams RD, Hoskins HD. Congenital and juvenile glaucoma. Curr Opin Ophthalmol. 1992;3:154-158.
  • Stamper RL, Williams RD. Color vision and glaucoma. In: Podos SM, Yanoff M, eds. Textbook of Ophthalmology. Gower Medical Publishing; 1991.
  • Mamalis N, Apple DJ, Williams RD, Crandall AS, Manthey R. Surgical removal of an ‘inoperable’ neurofibroma. Ophthalmic Surgery. 1988;19(1):3741.