I would like to see a stronger drive to de-bias recruitment practices. Subconscious bias is still very common, and companies run exclusively by white males statistically tend to hire more of their kind. A general quota for women and ethnic minorities in the application process is absolutely achievable and constitutes the first step of re-balancing the scales in the hiring process. Companies with a strong focus on diversity tend to perform significantly better and have a competitive advantage on the market, so it’s a no-brainer, really!
As a part of my series about “Lessons From Inspirational Women in STEM and Tech”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Francesca Leithold, Chief Operating Officer at Epro.
Originally from Germany, Francesca has lived across Europe, came to the UK in 2014 and joined Epro, a clinically-led digital solution for healthcare professionals and organizations. Francesca looks after the operations team at Epro and manages the client delivery of the product suite from start to finish, to deliver safer patient care and a paperless NHS across the country.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I came to health informatics rather unexpectedly, but maybe not surprisingly so. I have a masters degree in Information Management, so education-wise I’m an allrounder rather than a specialist — computer science and information processing, linguistics, management, and politics were all part of the menu!
I did my PhD at Munich School of Management and focused on usability, software ergonomics, and performance factors of distributed teams using digital means. Purpose, and the greater impact of what we do in life with our career, is quite important to me, so I took some time off after my PhD to consider where to go from there and what my options were. I wanted to make a difference somewhere!
Traveling abroad, I met British people, who invited me over to stay with them for a bit. One of them worked at Epro, introduced me to Adam, the company owner, and the rest is history! The company’s mission statement — deliver benefits to patients and safer patient care — and the size of the company resonated with me, and so I started as the usability expert / product specialist, became the project manager shortly after, progressed to become Head of Professional Services, and now COO.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company?
Very early on, we went to a customer where we had rolled out clinical correspondence. It was my job to complete the benefits study, so I interviewed staff who were now using Epro and had previously used audio tapes.
They told me that prior to Epro, the amount of paper in their offices had been so large that the desk was not enough storage… so they started building piles of patient case notes on the floor to have them available in the office. Medical records people spent their days chasing around the hospital, wandering from office to office in search of urgently required case notes, losing hours in the process. In cases where notes were located in a satellite site and were required urgently, taxis or couriers were sent to acquire them, so that outpatient clinics could proceed as planned.
There was one incident where a secretary fell over a pile of case notes, straining her ankle and requiring hospital care herself! It really hit home for me that our software makes all the difference!
Having been to hospitals throughout the country, visiting secretaries and admin staff offices, I have seen the walls of paper and the resulting risk for patient care they represent. I’m very proud to be part of the product which helps deliver the paperless NHS (and probably saves one or two trees, too!).
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Adam and I were traveling back from a customer onsite meeting, and it was late in the afternoon. The day had been long, and we stopped at a motor services to get a break from the journey. The service station was the type of where they constructed a massive bridge over the motorway, and you have (identical) shops on both sides, with a restaurant in the middle. After we’d eaten, I went to the bathroom and we agreed to meet at the carpark. Coming back, I went in my head over the actions from the day’s meeting, which was an important one, and then waited patiently at the entrance for Adam to pick me up.
Only he never showed up.
After 10 minutes, I started searching for the car. There was no car either. It was definitely the right car park, all the shops were there, and all the signs were correct. It was one of the most confusing moments — I genuinely felt that either he had driven off without me, or the service station bathroom had somehow been a time travel phone booth in disguise and I had ended up in a parallel universe.
I called Adam, and he stated he was in front of the entrance. I was in front of the entrance. It didn’t make any sense. After much confusion and a mild panic, I decided that waiting indoors for a miracle might be the best action, which is when I saw the footbridge. Never experienced so much immediate relief at a service station ever again! A story I cherish up to this day. The learning: focus on one task at a time.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Epro is a truly unique company to work for, and while it’s a fast-paced environment, we strive to deliver excellence, even when the customer isn’t looking. Good things continue in the background even after 17.30! We have a horde of hardworking individuals who don’t go home when the job isn’t done, so there is a culture of real commitment and connection to your team.
On a more entertaining note, we have a frightening devotion to accuracy and attention to detail. When we wanted our office redecorated, we worked closely with the company: we showed them what we wanted, worked hard to get it right, and were happy to change things and even redo work to make it better. It’s a similar process with our Trusts — they tell us what they want, we work hard to get it right, and we’re happy to change/redo work to make it better.
A truly pareto-principled interior design project, but the result looks great. Don’t get me wrong, so did the first set of floor tiles! Jokes aside, this is the culture we live at Epro. If it isn’t quite right (yet), fix it.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
We’re currently rolling out electronic prescribing and medicines administration (EPMA) as a project at one of our GDE (global digital exemplar) Trusts, Wye Valley NHS Trust, in cooperation with the Slovenian provider Better.
EPMA integration and interoperability is one of the key factors for safer patient care, as errors made in drug prescribing have a disproportionate impact on patient safety. By embedding this into our comprehensive EPR light product suite, we are one step closer to achieving paperless patient care.
The difference we as a company can make by digitizing large parts of inpatient and outpatient care is considerable, and leads to leaner, faster, and safer NHS care. A side benefit of the project is that I have been to Slovenia for the first time in my life, and it is a well and truly amazing country! 40% of it is covered in mountains. What more could you want?
Ok super. Thank you for all that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. Are you currently satisfied with the status quo regarding women in STEM? What specific changes do you think are needed to change the status quo?
STEM and Tech companies are still predominantly run by white men, and have a large majority of male employees. This isn’t always the company’s fault; the number of female applicants for developer jobs we have seen here at Epro has been very limited — a handful at most! In many cases, women still choose less tech-heavy career paths, which in turn leads to a shortage of female employees in tech companies, and a considerable underrepresentation of women in leadership positions in tech companies.
If you widen the perspective to include different ethnicities, it gets even worse. Compared with other subgroups, women of colour are significantly absent in STEM professions and that has to change.
To address this, I feel there are several options for adjustment in the system, but we need to acknowledge that it is a complex challenge, change can be slow, and the answer may not be straightforward.
Personally, I would like to see initiatives from as early as primary school to advertise STEM topics to girls, with dedicated workshops and classes, possibly within a partially gendered education approach. Girls tend to outperform boys academically, until it comes to STEM subjects — here, the boys win. I think we can address that by running classes which are girls only — adjusting gender norms present which have found to be one of the causes of girls under performing at math. At the same time, there is still a strong bias in grading.
I think cultural stereotypes may play into the picture, and a deliberate approach of targeting girls in education and academia can help. With dedicated resources to revise school and academic curriculum to place a more distinct focus on BAME female scientists, writers, business leaders, and politicians, we can change perception at an early stage, presenting the idea of a female STEM career path as the norm, rather than the exception. Anonymization of grading processes by introducing technological means to remove student / pupil data from exam papers is the way forward.
Within a business context, I would like to see a stronger drive to de-bias recruitment practices. Subconscious bias is still very common, and companies run exclusively by white males statistically tend to hire more of their kind. A general quota for women and ethnic minorities in the application process is absolutely achievable and constitutes the first step of re-balancing the scales in the hiring process. Companies with a strong focus on diversity tend to perform significantly better and have a competitive advantage on the market, so it’s a no-brainer, really!
Last but not least, there is a strong need for better childcare provision and flexibility in the workplace for women with children. Women still tend to be the main child carer, doing a significantly higher proportion of housework and childcare while men traditionally achieve both a career and children without a disproportionate increase in time spent. Employing measures to enable women with dependent children to work more flexible hours or bring their children onsite or into a company nursery enables the company to make use of its entire workforce rather than excluding one half from the picture! Post COVID-19, with a large proportion of employees working from home, we should recognise that productivity does not suffer in flexible and prioritise remote working arrangements.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women in STEM or Tech that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts? What would you suggest to address this?
Subconscious bias seems to be very common. Epro is a great company to work for, and I have never encountered any challenges based on gender or origin (though jokes are made about German efficiency on the job!), but I had a situation where the customer mistook me for the coffee-lady in one of the onsite meetings.
I could see the look of surprise on his face when I was later introduced as Head of Professional Services. My job title often drops from meeting agendas, and I get introduced as the project manager, or project person. I don’t always bother to correct this, but it does show how these things take place without great fanfare. Gender bias is very subtle.
In my opinion, there is also a definite element of dress code. Without exception, in business meetings I have been to, women in leadership roles wear suits or formal business attire, whereas it is not uncommon that a male CEO rocks up in a woolen jumper, and no one will question either his position or choice of attire. If I attended the next meeting in a hoodie, I feel meeting participants might mistake me for an intern!
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a woman in STEM or Tech. Can you explain what you mean?
I would like to make a strong point for the fact that a career in tech is and can be the rule, not the exception. You don’t have to be a programmer or a computer engineer to work in a tech company, and I have learned over the years that the synergies resulting from a team with cross-domain career paths in it (we have employed former teachers, geologists, electrical engineers, builders, and linguists, to name only a few!) are substantial. They also make your work life so much more interesting!
Also, ladies (and gentlemen), software companies are a great place to work in! Contrary to popular belief that IT startups consist of geeky techies hidden away in the closet (well, we do hide them on the top floor!), they are a place of creativity, collaboration, and new ideas coming to life. I’ve never regretted my choice of career within IT.
What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience as a Woman in STEM or Tech” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Understand your domain and do your homework. I think that is valid for every sector, regardless of where you work. Tech and STEM companies are still dominated by men, and in some instances it is necessary to prove oneself more than one’s male counterparts. It’s always better to know what you’re talking about. No one expects you to be a programmer (unless you are!), but it can be expected that you understand what you are delivering. Men get away without having read the project scope and plan before the meeting. Women might not, and it is paramount to not end up in a situation where people expect you to be the expert, and then you aren’t, simply because you haven’t done your homework.
- You don’t have to have all the answers. This might appear slightly contradictory, but it isn’t. One is about being prepared, the other is about being organised. As a working example, I know how our software works and the architecture behind it. No one would — reasonably so — expect me to start debugging java runtime exception errors, yet I had situations in meetings (largely male dominated, it simply comes with the industry) where people try to catch you out on this. Be firm. Stand your ground. Know what your job is, and what isn’t, and don’t be afraid to say so.
- Be authentic. I think, especially as women in high performing jobs, we feel we need to prove a lot, a lot of the time. Trying to be someone else is bound to lead to unnecessary strain, and whoever you work with can usually tell. Very early in my career, while teaching at university, I was extremely nervous (teaching a class in front of 200 people can do that to you) and tried to overcompensate by preparing absolutely every single question I was worried might come up. I was hyper-alert. I dressed extra-formal. I stuck to a rigid schedule. Not surprisingly, the experience was terrible for both the students and me, and my evaluation results reflected that. I learned from that (no pain, no gain!), started to relax myself and my teaching, and loved it (and so did my students).
- Don’t compare yourself to others. It’s fine to check from time to time how other people from your graduation year, your networking events, your friends in similar positions, or simply colleagues on the same level as you are doing their job. If you end up in turn questioning whether you are really doing your job all that well, whether you have really achieved enough, whether you start getting up at 4AM, run 10k twice a week, only have smoothies for breakfast, take language lessons, learn a new skill, and do a masters’ degree in your free time on top of doing your day job — stop. It is great to drive for better performance, to strive for excellence, to try to achieve more. Do it for yourself, and at work for your team, not because you think other people are doing a better job.
- Use the bathroom before meetings. I cannot stress this point enough! It might be such a small thing to mention, but I had a situation early on during my time at Epro where we had a customer meeting onsite in the morning, traffic was bad, and I was late by 20 minutes. I was met at the front door and dropped right into the meeting, and because I was late (and still fairly new), I didn’t dare ask where the bathroom was. It was a project kickoff meeting, lasting over 2 hours, and I still struggle to recall the last 15 minutes because my predominant thought was around how to make the quickest escape to the bathroom. Not a good experience. Fortunately, someone else took the minutes!
What advice would you give to other women leaders to help their team to thrive?
I’ve worked with a lot of different people during my time at Epro, and we achieved the best results when people work well together, have a clearly defined task, and understand it.
We as a company talk a lot about the ‘so what’ factor, and I strongly feel that if people understand why they have been given a task, they will do it better. Definitely ensure there is someone owning the project or task, and is accountable — I have learned over the years that distributed ownership can be like a deer in the woods. You know it’s there, but difficult to track down with a spotlight.
If you work with a cross departmental team, ensure you have your reporting lines straight and that people know who they can expect leadership and line management from — the two don’t have to be the same, but there needs to be agreement, and that agreement has to be communicated to whoever is in your team.
Last not least, don’t over-engage. Don’t micro-manage. Trust your team to deliver what they have been given and to come to you for advice if they get stuck. Give them room to shine!
What advice would you give to other women leaders about the best way to manage a large team?
Teams at Epro are small in nature because we are a small company, but I feel that the same principles apply fundamentally.
Provide a clear idea. Give ownership and accountability, possibly organising a larger team into smaller units — there is only so much management one person can do! Empower people with the right to make their own decisions and trust them to make them well — the larger your team gets, the more need there is for management by exception, but at the same time ensure you have regular checkpoints with your team member so you don’t lose track of what’s going on, on the ground. If you don’t understand what a person is working on, ask them about it. Sit with them. Take time out of your day to listen and learn. You never know what you might find!
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
When I was a child, computers weren’t really a thing everyone had, so exposure to IT was fairly limited. From a very young age though my father, an engineer, took me to his workplace — he was the exec of a sand and gravel plant — during the school holidays. My parents both worked and childminders were in short supply.
My earliest memories include being in the great repair hangar for the machinery, observing from a safe distance welding, soldering, drilling, and assembling, and the smell of motor oil and petrol is one of my favourites until today. At home, he engaged me in whatever DIY projects he had on the go at the time. When I was a bit older, he actually taught me how to weld! All of this has instilled in me the unshakeable belief that a) the screws I have drilled in are the tightest (yes he really said that!) and b) that if a task can be done, then there is no reason (including your gender) why you shouldn’t be doing it.
At the same time, the women in my family were very strong. My mother is a very outspoken feminist and women’s right supporter, my grandmother worked all her life while raising three children, my aunt’s career was as a business leader — this was prepping the grounds for a view that unequal conditions for women are not acceptable and that it is your right to speak up and stand your ground if something is not right.
At Epro, Adam has been my close mentor over the years, and I have learned a lot from him. I admire his way of thinking, his ability to approach a situation and break what appears to be a large, convoluted problem into small, rational chunks. This is where I want to get to. His dedication to excellence, attention to detail, and critical thinking have taught me a tremendous amount.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
The NHS system is not without its flaws, but I admire the promise on which it delivers. Healthcare, free of charge for everyone, regardless of who you are, where you’re from, or how much you earn.
Epro is dedicated to delivering solutions to the NHS to make patients’ care better and safer — one of our mission statements! Working for Epro and helping to make this happen has been incredibly rewarding over the years, and I strongly identify with what we do.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
I would like crisps to disappear from the meal deals in supermarkets. Crisps are seen in the UK as a common element of lunch, and the supermarkets reflect that, often advertising up to eight varieties when there are only one or two options for fruits and vegetables — which then in turn can be hard to find! Why?
In the same spirit, I’d like to see meal deals with unhealthy options such as crisps and chocolate bars coming in at higher prices, with the margin used to fund early prevention programs for childhood obesity. This would both serve as a dis-incentive to purchase, as well as source of additional funding for the health sector.
Childhood obesity is a ravaging problem in the UK, with considerable long-term consequences for adult health and the NHS in consequence. Children from lower socioeconomic backgrounds are disproportionately affected, and are therefore both more likely to require support as well as benefiting more from it. A no-brainer!
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Honestly — I found this the most challenging question of the whole interview! Life is so varied that I am unsure whether all of it can be summed up in one lesson. If I was to choose, I would go with “vivamus atque amemus”. It’s part of the first line of Catullus’ poem 5, written 54–85BC in Rome, and simply translated, means “let us live, and let us love”. The magic comes when Richard Crashaw translates it in 17th century England, changing it to “Come and let us live my Deare / Let us love and never feare”
The poem is fundamentally about love, but also about how life is short, that we should make use of our time and not squander our moments. It encourages the reader to not worry about what others might think but instead to live in the moment and make the most of the time they have together. Crashaw adds the element of looking forward and not to dwell on worry about the things to come. So much promise on two lines. It has stayed with me ever since!
We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂
This might be a bit of a daring choice (her schedule must be incredibly busy!), but I would opt for the German chancellor, Angela Merkel. Her European (and national) leadership over the years has been inspiring and truly extraordinary, presenting clear, calm, and dedicated decisions in what have been turbulent and uncertain times. She represents the most influential female figure in both the European Union and European politics of our time.
She sets an example of leadership which demonstrates that women in key positions are needed more than ever, and that inclusivity and a clear global vision are the answer to the escalatory rhetoric of politics we so often observe in these times.