Why diversity in health tech is so crucial
"It will be a wonderful day when individuals come to work and can be their true whole selves and not worry about, “Do I fit in? Do I need to behave a certain way?” People that are worried about being themselves authentically are expending so much energy on something other than being at work and being present.” - Liz Porter
Diversity in health tech will inevitably save lives. Having representation at all levels of development and implementation will ultimately lead to better service and success for everyone. That's something Liz Porter, President of Leidos Health Group and Kristin Gowers, Chief of Staff for Leidos Health Group, recognize and work hard to achieve.
On today's podcast:
- Why diversity in tech is vital to success
- Why diversity needs to be at all levels
- The changing global workplace's impact on diversity
Kristin Gowers: Thinking about developing an electronic health record, you may not have that person in the room that's going to say, "Well, what about maternal health? Or what about women's health? Or what about a module for mammograms?" Without that in the room, you're missing these vital pieces to a solution that's supposed to support a population.
Shaunté Newby: Diversity in the tech sector is crucial to success and in producing outputs that work for all. But in the health field, that diversity will ultimately save lives and ensure equitable health care for everyone. Unfortunately, the tech sector has historically not been an overly diverse space. While changes have happened and things have improved, it's more important than ever to encourage those changes to keep coming and create more opportunities for adequate representation. That's what Liz Porter, President of the Health Group at Leidos, is working to do.
Liz Porter: It will be a wonderful day when individuals come to work and can be their true whole selves and not worry about, do I fit in? Do I need to behave a certain way? Do I need to work that much harder mentally than just being themselves?
Shaunté Newby: Today, Liz Porter, president of the Leidos Health Group, and Kristin Gowers, Chief of Staff for the Leidos Health Group, join to talk about why diversity in the tech space is so important, how to create an environment that encourages diversity, their own inspiration for entering the tech field as women, and a lot more. My name is Shaunté Newby. This is Mindset, a podcast by Leidos. In this series, our goal is to have you walk away from every episode with a new understanding of the complex and fascinating technological advancement going on at Leidos. From space IT to trusted AI to threat-informed cybersecurity, we've got a lot going on, and we're excited to share it with you. So Liz, let's start with you, what do you do at Leidos as the President of Health?
Liz Porter: So as the President of Leidos Health, I lead an amazing organization where we do everything from research, meaning basic clinical and transitional research, through to care delivery and medical exams and all of the information technology and mission software and everything in between that really support the healthcare in the United States, specifically for federal customers.
Shaunté Newby: What about you, Kristin? What do you do?
Kristin Gowers: I do a little bit of everything here. I mainly support Liz and all of her grand ideas to make our organization one of the best and biggest in the healthcare space.
Shaunté Newby: What influenced you to pursue a career in technology?
Kristin Gowers: So, it was sort of accidental. So, my degree is in psychology, and I just sort of accidentally found out I was good at statistics because I had to take some statistics classes. And I sort of had always avoided Math because I didn't like Math, so I stayed away from it. But it turned out I had a sort of a little bit of a knack for it, and I was like, "Oh, this isn't bad." And when I was starting to look for jobs, I was sort of looking in something like maybe data analytics, data analysis, something like that.
Kristin Gowers: But 15 years ago, when I was looking, health IT wasn't really the field it is today. It was, but it wasn't. And so, sort of my entry-level data analysis job 15 years ago has become this data enterprise world in the way it has shifted. So, it just sort of naturally progressed that way because obviously, you can't do data analytics without some sort of health IT, without data management, without all these other components. But if you asked me 15 years ago, do I ever think I was going to work in health IT, be surrounded by engineers and do all this sort of data management, I absolutely would have said no, no way. But the way that it has progressed and the more, the deeper I got into the space, the more I enjoyed it. So, I kept going, I kept going and I'm no longer scared of statistics.
Shaunté Newby: We're thankful that you aren't scared of stats anymore. So that's great. What about you, Liz?
Liz Porter: So, I wouldn't say moving into this career field was an accident because by the time you actually move into your career field, I was already... Had gone to engineering school. But what really drove that, what really led me to it is, similar to Kristin, I was good at Math and Science. I was good at Physics. And it was one of those situations where my mother saw that and could appreciate and was the one that was encouraging for me to pursue an engineering degree, though she was an economics and history major, because I think some people know that at the time, I was going to be a rock star, so I wasn't going to go to college. And my mother was the one who made me apply and made me get year deferments so that I could end up going to engineering school, which I'm forever grateful. Don't ever doubt your mother. Your mother knows best. [chuckle] But I did, I ended up studying Electrical Engineering. And it was through that program that I really got interested in various aspects, specifically solar arrays. And that's what led to being a solar array design engineer for satellites. And from there, it was just... I kind of laugh that Kristin doesn't think of herself as an engineer because as she describes what she does, it's... That's what engineers do.
Liz Porter: We solve problems. Here's the problem. Here's how I dissect it and start to solve it. And I don't always have all the answers, so I just figure out who can help me answer it. And just applying that in different ways has always been really exciting.
Shaunté Newby: For a long time, men have dominated the tech world. From a young age, boys have been encouraged to follow their interests in Math and Science, while girls didn't get that same kind of fostering. But fortunately, that's changing. Data from the integrated postsecondary education data system showed that in 2020, women represented 45% of students majoring in STEM fields, up from 40% in 2010 and 34% in 1994. That diversity is important on a lot of levels. Perhaps the most obvious is that it shows girls are being given the opportunity to follow their STEM interests. But there's more to it than just that. I had Liz and Kristin share just why this is so important.
Liz Porter: Having spent a lot of time in various technologies, working with various technologies across many different domains and platforms, it really drives home why diversity is so important when you think about health and technology. We're women on this call, and there are women's exams that happen. And I sometimes wonder if a woman was involved in the development of a mammogram because it is not something that is necessarily designed with the user-centric perspective of a woman. And I think that's true for many different types of technologies. And having that diverse perspective to understand what it's like to be the person going through the procedure or engaging with the technology versus just trying to get the outcome of the image.
Shaunté Newby: So being truly able to think like the end user, the person being impacted by whatever the technology is. Got it.
Liz Porter: Yes.
Shaunté Newby: Okay. Let's dig into the health field, the health tech field. What is unique about the health tech field?
Kristin Gowers: So, I think what's unique about it is both your end users and the population that you're caring for is 50% women. And I don't think there are a lot of other sectors that you can really confidently say it is half the population the way it is for healthcare. And healthcare really does touch everybody. You may say social media, all these other technologies, sure, they touch everybody. But you can kind of opt-in and opt-out. Healthcare you really don't have that ability. So, it impacts such a large portion of the population. So, with women sort of needing to be part of that representation in leadership roles helps sort of drive how it's going to be used for end users, but also how it touches all of us in our everyday life.
Liz Porter: When I would add to that, that again, focusing on broader diversity, not just women, but even transgendered women and thinking about the specific health needs for that population, which again is somewhat different, and when I look... I've now been in my role for about two and a half years, and when I look at those that are involved on the technology side, even in the national health systems beyond the federal side, it is heavily senior males that are involved in the leadership aspects, even as CIOs and other roles. And not having that representation, again, leads to challenges in development and understanding of how to apply that technology.
Shaunté Newby: So, healthcare is a very tangible field that you all support at Leidos in terms of how you reach people. What opportunities does that present in how you think about technology and applying solutions?
Kristin Gowers: When you're just thinking about healthcare technology, and if you were to pull women out of the conversation, thinking about developing an electronic health record, you may not have that person in the room that's going to say, "Well, what about maternal health? Or what about women's health? Or what about a module for mammograms?" Without that in the room, you're missing these vital pieces to a solution that's supposed to support a population.
Liz Porter: Well, and if I look at it, again, more broadly from both the military and the veteran side, and I think about our interaction with the system. So, we are involved in the electronic health record implementation for the Department of Defense. And one of the reasons there was a big push to ensure that that was the same system and record to be used for veterans is because on the veteran side, they're eligible for disability and other types of pension related to things that happened to them while they were in the military. And today, imagine an individual has to carry around massive stacks of paper, as you know, Shaunté, stacks of paper that you can lose some of it and maybe it's not all there. And there are benefits that you are entitled to, depending on what happened. And so being able to be involved as that record is being rolled out so that newborns or individuals that are entering the military today will have a record that is available with all of their information until they retire, or they leave the military service and enter into the VA side.
Liz Porter: And they don't have to worry about carrying around that data. It really is just that greater impact of what it can mean in the future from a technology side and how Kristin's field of data analytics, how that can be overlaid to help predict and understand and know ahead of time what are the latest, what they call presumptive, what are the latest ailments that could be inflicted on a military service member because of some exposure that they had. And so, knowing that and being able to lead to almost an automatic claim is really exciting of something that would happen in the future and really something that we're actively involved in and seeing that direct impact.
Shaunté Newby: I know it's truly appreciated not having to carry around these binders of paperwork and things like that. I know that for my father, and I have a sister that was in the military, and they have their little folder with... Yeah, [laughter] it's like if I could scan it all, like give it to me, I'm going to scan it. [laughter] All right.
Liz Porter: Yes. And that's what they end up doing.
Shaunté Newby: Yes. Yes. I'm all about electronic. Get rid of that paper. Liz, you were actually going down this street earlier, but what are some of the consequences that come from not having women represented in health technology?
Liz Porter: I definitely think it's related to the application. There's a kind of a more technical piece as far as the data and some of the information and ensuring that that's appropriately representative of all of diversity. And I think there's a technical side, so whether it's something like the mammogram, would a woman have designed or would a woman come up with a different design related to that technology that would be able to have the same type of outcome potentially. But there are even basic interactions and things that happen that when you don't think about what... Who it is, you know, I look at something like a clinical trial. Now I'm well more aware of clinical trials than I ever was in my life, as many people probably are now with COVID, but even more so because we do clinical trials within the company.
Liz Porter: Each individual reacts differently to a drug, to a medicine and ensuring that you have that diversity so that when they roll out the next COVID vaccine, that it is as effective in everyone in the population, not just having a singular lack of diversity in the clinical trials. It's something as simple as that because we are all different. And so how do you capture those differences in the health space? It's really critical because it changes your health outcome.
Shaunté Newby: Yeah. And so even like a missing representation in the room, like once they're in the room, you have to be able to listen to them too and do something about it. They need to feel like their word matters too.
Shaunté Newby: The thing to remember with diversity is that there are layers. It's not enough just to have women in the workforce. They also need to be represented in positions of all levels. Equally important, just having women in the workplace can't be the benchmark for diversity. Diversity is more than just gender. It's race, its sexual orientation, it's socioeconomic background, physical ability. It's diverse. But back to that first point, having diversity needs to extend to all levels of a workplace. As you know, Liz is the President of the Health Group at Leidos. I asked her what kind of impact holding that position and responsibility has on influencing and recruiting underrepresented people in the field.
Liz Porter: I would really hope that we get to a stage where we have enough diversity and leadership across the board, ethnically diverse as well as female, and across all of our employee resource group diversities. That individuals see someone in the company that's in a leadership role that they aspire to. And that in my case, I see it more as I don't want them just to see me as a woman leader, but I want them to see me as kind of an engineer and the possibility of what you could do with a technical degree.
Shaunté Newby: How does creating equal opportunity across all identities aside from just gender impact a diverse environment? So, I'm talking about race, sexual orientation, you mentioned gender identity and expression, physical disabilities. So, what are your thoughts on that?
Liz Porter: It will be a wonderful day when individuals come to work and can be their true whole selves and not worry about, do I fit in? Do I need to behave a certain way? Do I need to work that much harder mentally than just being themselves? People that feel like they are worried about being themselves authentically are just expending so much energy on something other than being at work and being present. And I remember that when I first came into this role, there was a woman that was a Black woman who was part of the organization and saw me with my curly hair and was like, "Hey, I guess I can wear curly hair." And I'm like, "Of course you can, it's your hair." And yet we take that for granted. We take that for granted, Shaunté. We don't think about what individuals feel like they need to do to fit in. And that comes in many different flavors. And we don't get the most out of the individual that wants to come and fully participate because they are partially participating because they're partially worried about something else. And so, to me, that will be the biggest impact. And that would be the greatest impact to the company because everybody would be there thinking about, how do I solve these problems for a customer and not thinking about something that's nonproductive.
Kristin Gowers: To add on that, it's also thinking about growing as an employee. And if all your energy is being spent just trying to fit in, you can't really allow yourself to grow and take advantage of all these programs and the Leidos culture and all of this. If all your energy is being put into just showing up and trying to look and act like everyone else and not who you are as a person, that's going to lead to burnout and all sorts of other things. And we can't grow people if you're just trying to survive.
Shaunté Newby: Yeah. And all that definitely depends a lot on the environment. You can tell people to bring their authentic selves to work, but are you ready for them to bring their authentic selves to work? Are you ready for it? Because I know I've seen in, not necessarily in Leidos, but in other organizations, people hear diversity, equity, and inclusion, they think, oh, we're going to take a risk, you know, hiring a diverse candidate, a woman, a person of color, or a sexual and gender minority. So that mindset has to shift. It's not taking a risk; you're hiring talent to get the job done and solve those problems.
Liz Porter: You're hiring talent.
Shaunté Newby: So, what are some of the ways that Leidos encourages diversity, equity, and inclusion?
Liz Porter: When I first became part of the new Leidos, I was actually the Chair of the Women's Network. The employee resource groups are a great resource to connect like-minded individuals looking for ways to make... Kind of make headway, talk about the challenges that they're having and learn about how they can advance their careers. And now I'm actually the executive sponsor for the pride employee resource group. And so particularly in my role now, and when I think about how it applies to the health group, it has really opened my eyes related to not just the challenges that women had that I could understand, but now in particular, the pride community and the transgender community and some of the issues and challenges that they face. And particularly in the health space, it's an evolving area. And then also raised my awareness of how we can give back to those ERGs. I'm also on the board for the Red Cross. And there has been a perception in the pride community related to blood drives and their inability to be able to give blood in certain populations.
Liz Porter: And so being able to hold a panel with our doctors who were able to talk about medically why and when certain things can be identified in the blood and why you would not want that to happen, but really to help push the envelope and think about how that applies to the community. Being able to engage with the ERGs, not just have them, but being able to look at how that applies to the work that we do and informs not just how we run the company, but how it impacts the work that we do.
Shaunté Newby: It's impacted your perspective significantly because you mentioned transgender concerns very early in the conversation. In addition to what you just shared, how does all this play out in the Leidos Health Group in regard to your culture and special initiatives?
Kristin Gowers: I can talk about the Leidos culture definitely as a newer employee, it hasn't even been a year yet. Liz spoke about the ERGs, which are more of our formal programs that we have for diversity and inclusion. But I think just the general culture here, never once have I felt like I couldn't just email somebody whether I knew them or I didn't and say, "Hey, I was told you're really good at giving advice, do you mind having a 15-minute conversation because I'm not sure what to do in this situation?" Or just reaching out for some support if we had a... Needed some support on a particular IT program and we just needed some help and... Or some kind of career paths, not sure what to do. The culture here really does allow you to have open conversations and really supports growth in a way that I have not seen at another company.
Kristin Gowers: I have had very early on career conversations with people that I was not expecting them to say, "Well, where do you want to be in three years? Let's get you there. Let's do this." And they said, "We don't want to wait for you to be here a year. You've been here for three months. So, let's talk about where you want to be." And I think just having a culture that supports that and just sort of internal growth and really shows that you can have a career here at this company. You can be supported by the people around you. If you want to try one job and it doesn't work out, let's figure out your career path and move you to different programs so you don't get burnt out.
Kristin Gowers: I think having a company that supports that is one of the reasons that we're able to grow and do the things that we do and retain some of our top talent.
Shaunté Newby: As we learned earlier, diversity in tech is changing fast. So is the workplace globally. Changes in culture and how and where we work have created new opportunities and also new challenges. I asked Liz and Kristin to tell us about how these changes in culture and the workplace have impacted diversity and their perspectives on pursuing higher positions.
Kristin Gowers: I think I've seen a shift with more women just saying, why not? Like, let's go. But I think with COVID, people really started to prioritize a little bit more of what was important to them and just, I think, stopped being so polite and seeing a place for themselves at the table. Like there's no reason, I can do this too. It doesn't matter if our leadership has historically maybe been less diverse. I have something to say, and I think people are just getting a lot more confident and open with pushing forward and being part of the conversation.
Liz Porter: It is something that I'm looking out at as we think about navigating the new world. Navigating this much more mix of hybrid. We've been very fortunate that we've been very open to people working from different locations and everything, but even more so of so much more of the workforce really reevaluating through COVID, how much time they want to spend in the office versus out of the office to really give them that opportunity for work-life balance. And I'm hoping that that will encourage more diversity and individuals wanting to be in the workforce as a leader, looking at the next generation of leaders. What's changed is trying to figure out how we identify that talent in an environment where you're not sitting there side by side and seeing someone's leadership qualities just under the surface and seeing someone who may be the next set of high potential employees because you're not having those same interactions. And so how do we capture that? How do you understand that person's potential without being with them in person? And how do we keep doing that so that we can identify and identify the next set of leaders? And I think that weighs on my mind a lot as we navigate this new world.
Shaunté Newby: So, what advice would you give someone pursuing a career in technology?
Liz Porter: Well, a piece of advice that I often give to individuals who are interested in pursuing a tech field is to not rush into a management role. A lot of times more junior employees are really excited about levelling up and becoming that leader, and you can be a leader but still stay in the technical realm and not quickly jump out of the technical side. I mentioned the fact that, at my stage it's more about the broad knowledge and the broad experiences that I've had. And I've had them in technical spaces. I would not have had them if I moved into purely management and had stepped out of being close enough to the technology or to the... Kind of the science or the technology in my case now.
Liz Porter: I think that's something that I've been talking about for a while because I watched individuals throughout... Been working for almost 30 years, and so in those 30 years, watching people that fizzled out in some ways because they rushed into thinking I'm ready to lead everything and not getting themselves the experiences that they needed. And those that took the time to get the experiences or were willing to step back and get the experience have really found themselves excelling. And so, it's something that I try to encourage people to do because you get a little bit tired of some of the day-to-day and some of the technology grind that you lose sight of it. You want to try something different, but keep it in the technology realm and don't lose that skill and that ability to learn too soon.
Shaunté Newby: What about you, Kristin? What kind of advice would you give?
Kristin Gowers: I think Liz gave really good advice there. I also think it's diversify your experiences and not be afraid to take a step back to learn something completely new that's going to give you a broader skill set that will one day absolutely pay off. Maybe trying another program that's outside of ones that you've tried before or just something entirely different. And I think being confident to step back and diversify sort of that experience really is only going to pay off in dividends in the long run. And I think that's tough for people sometimes to maybe take what feels like a step back in your career, but I don't think a career is ever going to be a perfect ladder. It's more of that jungle gym theory. And I think that's going to show you maybe technology you've never been exposed to. It's also going to create a new network of individuals that you may be able to reach out to help answer those questions at some point down the road. So I think it's really diversifying your experiences wherever you can, even if that doesn't mean you get a new fancy title, but you're broadening yourself.
Shaunté Newby: That was Liz Porter, President of the Leidos Health Group and Kristin Gowers, Chief of Staff for the Leidos Health Group. If you want to learn more about Leidos' approach to diversity, check out leidos.com/diversity. Thanks again for joining this episode of Mindset, a podcast by Leidos. If you like this and want to learn even more about the incredible tech sector work going on to push humanity forward, make sure you subscribe to the show. New episodes will be live every two weeks. Also, feel free to rate and review. We're always excited to hear your thoughts on the show. My name is Shaunté Newby. I'll talk to you next time.