How Kate Quirke became the only female CEO on Australia’s All Tech Index

For there to be a meaningful shift, companies need to take deliberate action to advance women in their organisations by improving recruitment, culture and career development opportunities.

Kate Quirke is the Managing Director of Australian health informatics company Alcidion.

She is the only female CEO in the 46 companies that make up the Australian Securities Exchange’s new S&P/ASX All Tech Index. Alcidion comprises of 50% female representation on its executive management team and 30% of females on its board. It is also one of the few ASX-listed companies to be chaired by a female, with only 23 female chairs in the top 200 ASX-listed companies in 2018.

CEO Magazine sat down with her to chat about what it takes to reach the top and stay there.

Tell us about your first job and how you became CEO of Alcidion?

Kate Quirke: From an early age, I’ve always been passionate about how good health care can change people’s lives. My single mother was a cleaner in hospitals and had great ambitions for me to become a doctor. I took a slightly different path at university, drawn more to the business side of health, and landed my first role as Chief Health Information Manager at Caulfield Hospital. I was thrown into the politics of the health system very early and was often viewed as being too young, too fresh out of university for such a role. This only served to make me more resilient, more determined, and to use this insecurity as a source of strength.

After presenting at an industry professional development forum, I was head hunted to join McDonnell Douglas Information systems and offered my first role in the healthcare IT industry. It was a big risk and while my skillset wasn’t an exact match, I knew that technology would play a major role in the delivery of care and wanted to be part of that change. I started out initially in a role as a sales support specialist which turned out to be where most of the women were, while men predominately made up the sales team. Sales was where the money was made. I was soon offered a role in sales at a national level which pissed off some of the males in the sales team. The role required me to move interstate which was a huge risk I was prepared to take – and it paid off.

As my career in sales developed I was asked to move into a different industry – energy – in a role where I was to lead a large team in a strongly male dominated industry. It was probably one of the greatest learning experiences I have had in my career. It was hard but as we built a cohesive team and turned the account into a profitable, referenceable one, I learned that creating teams and leading them to a better place was a strength of mine. No doubt it was hard and required tenacity and resilience. In July 2018, as CEO of Health IT consulting firm MKM Health, I led the successful sale of the business to ASX-listed health informatics company Alcidion and was asked to become CEO of the newly consolidated company.

Looking back now, I think there were a couple of things that gave me upward mobility. First, the value of education and constantly learning. Beyond a degree, education helps to understand the world around us and how to sustain it for future generations. It certainly opened my eyes to new possibilities, new ideas, for transforming healthcare. Second, taking career risks early. My willingness to take career risks gave me the responsibility and expertise that have made me stand out from the crowd. Finally, I was fortunate to have mentors at different stages of my career development who were pivotal to my progression. Both were direct managers and pushed me into taking roles that I myself didn’t know I was ready to take on.

What traits do you think women need to succeed at an executive level?

Kate Quirke: I don’t believe there are defining traits that determine whether women will succeed at an executive level or not. What we’ve seen in having more women join the leadership ranks is that diverse ways of thinking and diverse ways of leading can drive growth and innovation in companies.

However, learning to be agile and resilient can help with career progression. It’s not about being tough, but being self-aware. Analysing your own strengths and weakness, and developing skills that help you problem solve, will enable you to be more adaptable when you face setbacks or obstacles or when risks don’t pay off.

If I had one wish it would be that women have more belief in themselves, more confidence. Men will apply for a role when they believe they have 60% of the skills for the role whilst women will wait until they have 100%. As we get older and experienced our confidence grows, but we need to work out how to instil that in women from when they are girls.

Alcidion has a very strong female representation on the board and on its executive committee. Is this by your choosing? What does this mean for the company’s brand and performance?

Kate Quirke: When I was asked to take on the role of CEO, Alcidion didn’t have equal representation in the management or the board. However, as we brought the different companies together, we made a conscious effort to improve decision-making and process to ensure a diversity of opinion. Experience and background was considered at a Board and C-suite level. Now we have a senior leadership team that is 50% female, which is what you would expect in a health tech company where women make up a large portion of the healthcare workforce. Having diversity of thought in the decision making process means that we can be certain that we’re creating the right solutions to industry challenges and customer success, and that it works for all users.

Do you believe men are becoming more receptive to gender parity or does more need to happen?

Kate Quirke: Yes, diversity among board members and executive management teams is becoming of increasing importance to boards and investors. Men in the workforce are also realising that gender parity benefits them and are asking employees to do more, with an increasing number of men taking on part-time or flexible work so they can shoulder the childcare and household responsibilities.

My husband is now full-time at home and it has been extremely rewarding for him and the children, but I think the burden still falls on women to call out barriers to inclusion today, so we need more men to commit to being advocates to help advance gender parity in the workplace and in society generally.

What do you believe needs to happen for more female CEOs or women in senior positions to occur?

Kate Quirke: For there to be a meaningful shift, companies need to take deliberate action to advance women in their organisations, by improving recruitment, culture and career development opportunities. You need to look at current recruitment processes and question whether job descriptions use inclusive language, interview panels are equally represented, and if diversity of opinion is considered a key criteria alongside skills and experience.

The best source of qualified female candidates may also be in your own company, so investing in formal mentorship and sponsorship programs can help develop and nurture the female talent you already have. A culture of flexibility and work-life balance also plays a crucial role in attracting potential candidates and ensuring them that their performance won’t be undervalued.

How do you use your position to advance more women into management roles?

Kate Quirke: As one of the few female CEOs leading public companies – the only female CEO on the ASX All Technology Index – I realise that this is an incredibly powerful (and lonely) platform. At Alcidion, I’m committed to investing in a diverse workforce and leadership team, by driving mentorship and diversity programs focused on building a strong pipeline of female talent.

Last year we launched the ‘Women in Alcidion’ forum, a space where management can better understand how to support and professionally develop its female employees and in the tech sector. I’m also aware that company culture and values is attractive to female talent in the industry and have spearheaded policies that support better work/life balance.

More women in management roles can be a driver of strong financial performance, through innovation and complex decision-making. What different skills does a woman in a management position provide?

Kate Quirke: The skills that I’ve seen in my senior management team and what I strive to bring in my leadership are honesty, openness and empathy. The best leaders are those that are able to actively listen and that leads to better customer outcomes. Being flexible and open to new ideas is also an important quality.

These are not qualities that are exclusive to women so we are looking for the whole team to demonstrate these qualities. If you are working in an environment like healthcare that has complex problems to solve you need to be able to look at these issues from a variety of different perspectives. It makes sense for that to include gender diversity, as well as cultural, so you can look at the problem from different angles and ultimately improve performance, as well as the outcomes.

How can the health technology industry advance diverse leadership by making it a more appealing career path for women? What are the barriers and what has been the culture that has been counterproductive for women?

Kate Quirke: Instilling a more supportive, flexible and inclusive culture in health and IT companies can help to attract more female talent. The tech industry has been historically male-dominated and there are fewer female role models which means women have lacked sponsorship opportunities and support for professional development, as well as clear pathways for promotions. There are also misconceptions about a career in technology, including that you need to start with an established skillset or technical background, or that it’s not creative. Our business is all about finding creative ways to solve real problems in the healthcare industry and we need a whole range of skillets to do just that.

What advice would you give to young women thinking of going to university?

Kate Quirke: Prepare to learn for a lifetime. There’s so much information out there about what careers will be good in the future and what career paths will take you there. The future of work will require technical knowledge combined with people, creative and problem solving skills.

There will also be a greater focus on resilience and adaptability – the ability to continuously learn and adapt to multiple careers in your lifetime. Some careers might not even exist in the market right now. University can provide a strong foundation for lifelong learning and support nonlinear career paths.

My daughter actually started secondary school this year and I tell her to keep up maths. It teaches you to problem solve, it’s as important as English and should be compulsory through to year 12. The barrier is confidence for girls. What messages are we giving girls early on that makes them think they can’t do maths and science?

This article was originally published in the The CEO Magazine, 09 November 2020