Sonja Bernhardt OAM, CEO, ThoughtWare
The potential for change is about shifting to creating a culture of ‘curious, creative and clever people’
September 15, 2014
Inspiring Fifty talks to Sonja Bernhardt, a serial technology entrepreneur and author of ‘Women in IT in the New Social Era: A Critical Evidence-Based Review of Gender Inequality and the Potential for Change’. Sonja is arguably one of Australia’s highest profile women in IT.
What was it that first attracted you to a career in technology?
There have been two life events that were key triggers for my chosen career.
The first was in the mid to late 1980s. I was a divorced single parent and knew I wanted to and needed to provide for my two children and myself, and I therefore required a ‘good’ job that would give me a solid income. Firstly, I returned to university to further my education, and then by chance I was lucky to stumble into a role I thought was Human Resources, but turned out to be a consultant for a company selling HR software.
I instantly LOVED IT and have remained in IT ever since.
The second was in 1999 when I was made redundant from a large technology company. I knew that I was good at what I did and that I had no control over the redundancy situation; as such I decided that I never wanted that to happen to me again. So within a few days I had set up my own company ThoughtWare, which is today an award winning software development house that creates Governance, Risk, and Compliance solutions in the e-health space.
You have been a big campaigner in encouraging women into the tech sector, what progress have you seen over the years since you first started out?
Yes, I sure have been an activist in this field. At one stage I measured the amount of time I voluntarily gave to ‘the cause’: it consumed three quarters of my weekends and one quarter of my income earning capacity. But like everyone who is passionate there is an internal fire that drives you on and on.
“Attraction, Promotion, and Retention” has been my catch-cry and that of many passionate activists in this field around the globe for almost three decades. Yet to date the secret of attracting females to study technology and to enter technology careers, navigating suitable promotional pathways, and retaining women in technology industries has not been found.
There have been truckloads of programmes and projects delivered by buckets and buckets of mega passionate people. However, they have resulted in little to no upwards progress in terms of statistics of females taking up tech studies, entering IT careers or remaining in IT careers.
In fact statistics have even reversed over those years.
All is not grim news though, as today we are looking at a world where technology itself has contributed to huge changes. Those changes have worked to eliminate or drastically reduce previous barriers (real or perceived), as well as facilitating a new generation of interest groups that have sprung up on social media. Thus making pathways easier to access and almost eliminating the need for the traditional approaches.
Some of the initiatives you have been involved with – including ‘Screen Goddess IT Calendar’ – have been dubbed ‘controversial’, can you tell us a bit more about these? Did they work?
Specifically with the Screen Goddess calendar it worked to unite the passionate volunteers involved, and helped to bond people in a united cause where many of those friendships remain today. However while it might have generated interest and encouraged some individuals, it did not ‘work’ in terms of attracting statistically more women into technology studies and careers.
All of my individual projects were immense fun to work on. Screen Goddess is my personal favourite, despite the backlash I received and even a Denial of Service (DoS) attack on the server by people who disagreed with the approach, as well as costing $25,000 of personal funds. My second favourite is Doing IT Around the World, where I gathered together technology and science role models across every continent, including Antarctica, and put together a diary of a typical day in their lives (all the same day – 11 August) plus a pictorial profile and interview with each role model.
What I know now, and have covered in my book, is that at the time such projects generally seemed successful – those involved almost always received positive feelings and satisfaction, and there was anecdotal evidence of some shifts, such as a few women who reported being inspired to take up a career. However no significant impact has been made. Sadly that is typical of the entire field across the past 30 years of intervention programs and projects.
Why do you think there is such a gender imbalance within technology specifically?
The short answer is that it simply reflects different average interests between men and women. Of course that is a controversial view – but one supported by the facts in the literature if not the theories.
Historically there have been strong gender-based barriers to women, but they were generations ago. If you read what are claimed as barriers today, you would think women were so timid they would be scared off from a career they love if a man looked sideways at them or they saw a picture of a fat nerd eating pizza. That is not only insulting to women, it flies in the face of the characteristics of girls and women who are interested in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) fields, notably self-confidence and a view of barriers as things to be overcome.
So my literature review and original research in this field has led me to propose that the chief problem is that the topic is fundamentally flawed:
- It assumes that the “natural” state of the number of women engaged in technology studies and careers is a “problem” that needs “fixing or correcting”; and
- It layers a gender lens over the ensuing discussions, research, and actions.
This matters because the way we perceive a topic determines our responses to it. To date the responses to the lower numbers of women in technology (and other like fields such as science and engineering) have been gender-based approaches. Those responses have failed. They will always fail, because they miss the point.
Research now reveals that most women in IT are there because they were interested from an early age. It’s not that women can’t do IT, nor that they don’t get it. It’s just that to select IT as a career they need to be MORE interested in it than other areas, and most women are more interested in other fields.
So it’s fundamentally an issue or personal interest not gender.
Your new book ‘Women in IT in the New Social Era’ was published earlier this year, can you tell us a bit about it? What is the potential for change?
My book turns the research and past approaches to this topic on its head. I have adopted a hard, factual, reality-based approach that directly states where failures have occurred and what has been wrong. I have a style where I like to ‘poke’ and state some obvious facts that people usually try to deny/hide from, and I use that style in the book. I propose some completely new recommendations that have never been said before, that are in line with our fast paced industry.
I realise some people may initially disagree with my findings and conclusions. However, I hope that they approach this with an open mind and look as deeply as I did into the facts, past their own theoretical preconceptions, and realize that it really is time to stop.
In the end I believe that my book almost gives people the okay to finally say what they have been thinking but never dared articulate. I have been personally surprised at the number of women who I’d feared would be resistant to my conclusions but basically said “Spot on!”
You can see a video here that outlines the themes, research results and recommendations.
The potential for change is about shifting to creating a culture of ‘curious, creative and clever people’ where we recognise that women are unique individuals. It is by promoting the idea that it is the individual who matters, the individual who thinks and has talent, which will one day mean people are judged as individuals on their own merits, not according to prejudices based on gender or ethnicity. It is not up to us to decide what other people should be interested in. But it is up to us to do what we can to empower all individuals, whoever they are and whatever their interests are. To let them choose their own path, not the path someone else thinks they should.
Who were your role models throughout your career and why?
Being who I am and what I do, I can’t go past Hedy Lamarr, a famous 1940’s Hollywood actress but also inventor of frequency hopping that is used today in mobile communications. As well as Grace Hopper, Rear Admiral in the USA Navy who basically taught computers to ‘talk’, and after whom it is speculated that the computer term ‘bug’ was coined.
Ada Lovelace, the first programmer in the world, is up there as well, however as a distant historical figure she played less of a role for me. I have pictures of all three at my work desk. All of these women overcame barriers and demonstrated tenacity, resilience and creative intelligence.
You have enjoyed great success in your career, and have received various awards in recognition of your work. If you were to give one piece of advice to women aiming for the top in technology, what would that be?
My advice is relevant across all career and life choices: Know yourself – know what you like and why you like it, understand why you react and think the way that you do. Choose your career consistent with that and you will both succeed and very importantly you will be happy.
I have secondary advice as well, which is do not measure your success by the perceptions of others. What matters is what is important to you. The classic career rise to the top may not be success measure for you, designer clothes may not be your success measure. To me being happy and inspired are my success measures.
Lastly, what are you working on right now that excites you?
Now that the book is finished I am focusing on 3 things:
1) My 11 year old daughter, by my delightfully happy second marriage, (my other children are now over 30 years old and I have grandchildren) is a bit of a geek and has her own youtube channel to show children how to use minecraft, plus she is writing a Minecraft book for children. It excites me to see her progress and to feel the pride that brings to her and myself.
2) My husband, a biotechnologist, has commenced crafting science fiction books – they are philosophically sound science-based thrillers. Supporting him in this endeavour is a thrill.
3) My company’s growth – I love having my own firm and being able to offer opportunities to people who seek genuine life flexibility, and more specifically to be able myself to offer jobs for females who are coders.