Caroline Clarke, CEO Philips, Dr Felicia Tan, FeM Surgery

Caroline Clarke, CEO and Executive Vice President for Philips Asean Pacific, and Director of FeM Surgery Dr Felicia Tan.

One is steering the APAC helm of a global health technology company, with a purpose of improving 2.5 billion lives each year by 2030; the other is director and founder of one of Singapore’s top surgical group practices, and regularly spearheads medical missions to underserved communities across Asia. 

While they’ve blazed different paths in healthcare, both Caroline Clarke, CEO and Executive Vice President for Philips in ASEAN Pacific, and Director of FeM Surgery Dr Felicia Tan, share a passion for championing others—both in patient care and in the workplace. 

“The reason I absolutely love my role at Philips is because everything we do is about improving lives,” says Clarke, who is responsible for the overall strategy, business and management of Philips in 14 countries across the region. In her years in health management and solutions, she’s seen first-hand how technology innovation can make a direct impact on people’s health and wellbeing.

But it has not escaped her notice that globally, “less than 20 per cent of board positions are filled by women, and this figure is even lower in Asia Pacific,” says Clarke. Philips’ own culture of gender inclusivity now sees an employee base of 40 per cent women in Asia Pacific, with more than 25 per cent of leadership positions held by women. “But we absolutely need more women. So how do we help with that?”

Likewise, Tan—who vowed to become a doctor after losing her mother to a car accident at age 12—has established a framework at FeM Surgery to support employee growth and development. “For every person that comes into our organisation, we make sure that they have a career path. Taking care of the people under you, I feel, is an important aspect of leadership in healthcare,” she shares.

The breast surgeon founded FeM Surgery a decade ago after rigorous surgical training in Singapore’s public healthcare system. By venturing out on her own and establishing a surgical group practice, Tan aimed to deliver ever higher standards of care to patients. “I knew I could do better for my patients by being my own boss. Waiting times for surgery can be shortened, more personalised treatment instituted and I could even perform free surgeries for needy patients!” she shares.

This International Women’s Day, the two inspiring leaders come together to discuss passion, compassion and the road to gender parity in healthcare.

What do you love about working in healthcare?

Caroline Clarke (CC): What I love most is that you’re making a difference. At Philips, we measure ourselves on how many lives are improved. We were able to improve 1.7 billion lives last year; 10 per cent of those were in underserved communities. If we’re talking about the ASEAN Pacific region, we influenced and improved 110 million lives, about 20 per cent of them in underserved communities. Everybody should have access to care, which is why we look into improving and lowering the cost of care. We also ask ourselves, how can we improve the patient experience through technology and innovation? How can we improve the staff experience? Because the burden on the care provider is enormous. And I love listening to our various partners to understand the challenges they face, and partnering with them to make a difference.

Dr Felicia Tan (FT): The healthcare sector is unique compared to other industries. We’re a lot less profit driven, and the patient always remains at the centre of everything that we do. So it’s a real joy and satisfaction to know that you’re consistently, on a daily basis, improving lives; you’re helping someone be disease free, or helping a patient’s overall wellbeing so they can live to their full potential and thrive. 

Would you say women bring unique perspectives to the healthcare space?

FT: Women are the key decision makers. I see it all the time at our clinics. Often when both parents bring a child in, it’s the mother who calls the shots on who you see, what treatment and where. As women in healthcare, we understand this decision-making process. And the other thing I find is that women leaders have a softer way of approaching things and tend to empathise a little bit better. 

CC: Like Felicia said, I think we are passionate about healthcare, we’re empathetic and we listen, whether to the patients, care providers or governments. So it’s really important that in businesses like ours, that women have influence; and it’s critical that we attract more women into healthcare leadership or we miss out on influencing policy. That said, diversity is just as important. We need to reflect and represent the population. The world is changing, healthcare is changing, and you need that diversity, collaboration and understanding of the needs of the population to develop futureproof models of care.

Is there gender inequality in the workplace? And how, as a leader, do you address it? 

CC: I see plenty of opportunities for more women in the boardroom. True, some have their careers disrupted by caregiving reasons, whether it be children or elderly parents, but there’s also bias, and very often it’s unconscious bias. At Philips, we train people to be aware of their behaviours, especially when they’re evaluating the potential of people. We’ve put a framework in place where, for example, every vacancy has to have a woman of equal calibre on the shortlist. Every interview panel also includes a woman, and we’ve also built up supportive networks of mentors across the region. When you see bias, call it out—not to create a negative environment, not at all, but to help educate people and coach people on this journey of change.

FF: Singapore’s healthcare system has come a long way in terms of gender diversity. Back when I went for my medical school interview, one question they asked was: How can I guarantee that I won’t give it all up to be a housewife? I was taken aback. Questions like this would now be flagged as gender bias. In medical school, 20 per cent of us were women. Today it’s about 50 percent, maybe slightly more. They’ve realised that women are equally capable doctors, surgeons and leaders. So I do think that the gender gap has closed quite a bit. But in the surgical field, most surgeons are men. And this means that some jokes made in the operating theatre can leave women colleagues feeling slightly harassed. This, I think, needs to be addressed. We need outlets for women to go up to their seniors and say, look, this is happening, it’s clearly bias. 

Have you been in a position where you had to call out bias?

FF: Yes, I have. When I was training as a junior doctor, there was an instance where I needed to go up to a trusted senior and say, “look, this happened”. There were no women surgeons, so I went to a male mentor. Subsequently, the university took action, and I learnt that it was fine to speak up, and that it’s fine to protect yourself.

What lessons have you gained from your career journey?

CC: Both the industry and the world we’re in is changing all the time. So for me, one lesson was in seeing change as an opportunity rather than a challenge; an opportunity to take on different roles, to learn new skills, and to have the confidence to move out of my comfort zone. Another is the realisation that having a mentor is important, so you’re not trying to do it alone. I’ve had a role model for the last 20 years. He was my manager as I was coming up through a different industry, and he was always there to guide and talk to me. Through the years there have been other people, who depending on the topic, I would go to for advice and support. It’s not a sign of weakness and it’s actually really helpful.

FT: As a business leader, it’s important to be compassionate to the people who are under you. It’s important that we look after our staff—the nurses and all the people who make sure that your job gets done. Not just look after them, but really recognise their talents. Bring them up, nurture them, and give them opportunities. Make sure they have career progression. For every person that comes into our organisation, we make sure that they have a career path. Taking care of the people under you, I feel, is an important aspect of leadership in healthcare.

What advice would you give women who aspire to be healthcare leaders?

CC: To enable success, you have to be somebody who really enjoys exploring and developing new skills as part of your development as a leader. The other thing is—like Felicia said—don’t be afraid to call out bias when you see it because it does happen. Your role as a leader is to enable and support others, so you have to be brave and call it out. You need to be a strong influencer but in a very compassionate way. Thirdly, take chances and take risks. Don’t rule yourself out of new or challenging things. Ask for what you need and the support you need, and go for it.

FT: Similar to what Caroline said, two things are most important: passion and compassion. Passion for what you do—have a clear vision, have a clear mission of why you’re in the healthcare industry and what you want to achieve. Second, is compassion. Because you cannot enter the healthcare space if you don’t have compassion for the patient; healthcare is all about the well-being and good outcomes for the patient. It goes beyond dollars. So come in with a heart of compassion, and be passionate about the cause that you’re trying to champion in the healthcare space.