"Being the only female chief executive on the ASX All Tech Index out of 46 tech companies is not a statistic I’m proud of and nor should any of us be," Quirke, the chief executive of the health informatics Alcidion group, told iTWire in an interview to mark International Women's Day.
"It’s a stark reminder that there is a long way to go when it comes to the representation of women at a board and executive level in tech companies and the pace of change is disappointing.“
Quirke has more than a quarter of a century of experience in the healthcare information sector, having worked as one of five working directors for the Victoria-based MKM Health.
Quirke was on the management buyout team that created iSOFT Asia Pacific through a merger with iSOFT plc in the UK in 1999, from the healthcare product business at Computer Sciences Corporation.
Before that, she held senior account roles in CSC (now DXC), managing large outsourcing customers and the NSW Healthcare Business unit.
She was interviewed by email. Edited excerpts are below:
iTWire: Is it a good feeling or a bad one to be the lone chief executive of a tech firm on the new ASX index?
Kate Quirke: Being the only female CEO on the ASX All Tech Index out of 46 tech companies is not a statistic I’m proud of and nor should any of us be. It’s a stark reminder that there is a long way to go when it comes to the representation of women at a board and executive level in tech companies and the pace of change is disappointing.
“Getting better” is no longer good enough and things need to change at a grassroots level. It also makes you wonder whether tech companies are just paying lip service to creating diverse workforces and leadership teams or if there are structured, formal processes in place to achieve this.’
When one talks of health informatics, what exactly is one talking about?
When Alcidion talks about health informatics, we’re referring to the management and use of data to transform the delivery of healthcare. Ageing populations and rising healthcare spend are placing greater pressure on hospitals. Healthcare leaders are investing in digital solutions to bring down costs, improve efficiencies, and address clinical risks and avoidable errors. Many hospitals still rely on legacy IT systems and manual communication tools like whiteboards that aren’t doing a decent enough job.
Health informatics is an important emerging area of healthcare as a result of the rapid shift in digital patient data and driven by the need for real-time analytics. The tools we provide to healthcare providers operationalise artificial intelligence and machine learning capabilities like natural language processing and decision support, to deliver information when they need it so they can make correct decisions for patient care.
There must be many occasions when you are the lone woman at a meeting. How does that make you feel and how do you get your point of view across?
Actually, I’m quite fortunate – and proud – to have equal numbers of men and women in most of my internal meetings and presentations. Today, 50% of our executive management team is female, as well as 30% of our board. This includes female leadership roles that in some traditional tech environments would have typically been held by men.
In addition to marketing and communication leaders, we have female executives leading product management, customer service and support and global sales. It means that in meetings, I’m reassured that our company is incorporating a variety of different perspectives, experiences and voices into decisions that affect our customers and the wider healthcare community.
"When Alcidion talks about health informatics, we’re referring to the management and use of data to transform the delivery of healthcare."
Having said that, this is not reflected in the finance and investment sector where I often find myself the sole female in a meeting. While I am not intimidated by this, I find it disappointing and it has certainly been something I have had to adjust to as I have become more connected with this sector.
Have you encountered a lot of open hostility to being the boss, especially after the #MeToo movement began?
No, I haven’t faced hostility as a leader. My team, at all levels, is positive and supportive. I can say that during my 25-year career in the health and tech sectors, I have certainly experienced my own barriers, hurdles and discrimination. In fact, I’ve never had a female boss that I can remember and there have been a few uncomfortable moments where men overstepped boundaries or behaved in a misogynistic manner.
While the media and entertainment industry started the conversation around treatment of women in the workplace, #MeToo reminds us that these experiences are not limited to one particular place, industry or occupation. It has been the catalyst for driving sustained change at a corporate level, to better equip employees and to build fair, safe and inclusive workplaces.’
In what ways do you think women in Australia are better/worse off than their counterparts in other similar countries when it comes to treatment in the workplace?
Leadership is clearly an area where Australian women experience disadvantage or lack of opportunity, in both the public and private sectors. The lack of female representation is obvious if you look at the number of seats held in parliament by women; the number of female legislators; and the number of women on boards and in senior leadership roles on the top ASX200 – or the Tech Index for that matter.
I think the low representation of women in leadership can be attributed to challenges women have faced in securing quality part-time and flexible roles at senior levels. There might also be unconscious bias in terms of a woman’s disposition and capacity to lead, when we know (and investors increasingly know) that workplaces led by women are simply good business.
Why does the technology industry suffer from this acute lack of women in all positions? Is it a cultural thing that will never change? Or is change afoot?
I believe there a couple of factors and misconceptions that are holding women back from entering and excelling in the tech industry. First, from my own experiences and other highly-publicised stories out of Silicon Valley, the tech world culture is "male dominated" and the collaborative and inclusive work environments that are attractive to women might be missing. Also, with fewer female role models, there might be a lack of sponsorship opportunities to ensure companies are promoting and retaining female talent.
Second, the shortage of girls taking STEM subjects to a University level has weakened the pipeline of young women entering technical or tech-related industries. Finally, there are also misconceptions about where a career in tech can take you, leading women to overlook career opportunities available in the digital world.’
What can be done to encourage women to join the [tech] industry?
Building a more inclusive culture is one effective strategy to better attract and retain female talent. By implementing flexible working arrangements, work-life balance perks and diversity initiatives, companies can build a culture that supports all employees without compromising productivity. Providing clear pathways for women to be promoted and shortlisted for leadership roles is also crucial.
It has been said that women often leave jobs in tech due to a lack of advancement. Creating employee resources groups or structured mentorship programs and equal representation in the hiring process, can support this. Job descriptions also have a major effect on whether a women applies for a role. At Alcidion, we’re actively reviewing our ads to remove language or requirements that might alienate female candidates, as well as ensure our core values are included as a key selection criteria.’
What initiatives did you put in place to bring the [Alcidion] management team up to 50% of women? What kind of opposition, if any, did you face?
At the time of Alcidion listing, they did not have that gender diversity represented in the management or the board. After listing, when two board roles became available the board appointed their first female director, Rebecca Wilson. Alcidion then acquired a couple of companies, one of which was MKM Health, of which I was CEO.
At this time the board asked me to take on the role of CEO and as we brought the companies together, we established a senior leadership team that has 50% female representation. For there to be a meaningful shift, we had to take deliberate action to move away from focusing solely on a candidate’s skills, to actively seeking diversity of opinion, which comes with gender as well as culture.
We also follow formal recruitment processes, with independent guidance for all leadership positions, to ensure we’re building a team based on diverse perspectives and experiences, rather than personal networks. In fact we are lucky to have an extremely talented pool of people in our organisation who have grown as we have grown and who, I hope, feel supported and mentored to develop and grow into leadership roles.
There is a lot of talk about training women in STEM subjects, with the rationale being that this means they would take up careers in these lines. Do you think that kind of thinking is correct? Or is there more to the story?
As a tech industry, we do need to work closely with government and educational institutions to encourage more girls and women to study STEM subjects to build a strong pipeline of talent for technical roles, whether that’s through internship opportunities, scholarships or better recruitment practices.
I also believe that we need to communicate how not all roles in tech companies are technical (such as engineers, developers and data scientists). Tech companies require people with different skill sets and are increasingly valuing skills like problem-solving, critical thinking, creativity and empathy. In fact, our chair, Rebecca Wilson, has no technological background – nor has she ever worked in the tech industry. However, her skills and experiences from a seasoned career in public relations and communication have been invaluable to the board in corporate governance and communicating complex issues to a wide group of stakeholders.
Anything else you would like to ventilate?
It is important that we all feel committed to diversity of gender and culture. This needs to be as important to men as it is to women. It cannot be left to the women to mentor other women. Studies prove that the vast amount of mentoring of women is done by other women. As a young woman coming up through the IT ranks, I have had a couple of important mentors who were male. We all need to believe and understand that with gender diversity we will get better performance across companies and industries.