Women In Tech: Career Advice From Sonja Hermann

SONJA HERMANN is a RESEARCH FELLOW and PRINCIPAL INVESTIGATOR at Trinity Centre for Bioengineering, we speak to her about her achievements to date, the lack of women in traditional tech jobs and her typical workday …


Sonja recently spoke at the it@Cork Tech Summit on May 3 at Cork’s City Hall. Sonja has a wealth of experience in the tech sector – most recently, in the digital health domain, Sonja has developed a sensor and method for pressure-ulcer prediction “SanaSense”, with US and European patent being currently granted. SanaSense measures tissue/muscle compression, which allows to objectify subjective feelings of discomfort or pain. Sonja can provide a great insight into the technology sector in Ireland and how although a growing number of women are entering the field, we need to do more to attract women into STEM.

Who or what has had a formative influence on your career?

The moment I realised finishing my bachelor degree, which was in the medical field (biomedical science), that I could go on to do almost any postgraduate degree, which wouldn’t necessarily have to be related to my undergraduate degree. Coming originally from Germany, at that time the German system did not offer that flexibility, you were expected to stick with the field of study you have chosen for your whole career and were only able to do a postgraduate degree in the same area of study as your undergraduate. Amazed by the new possibilities I had in London, I realised that in fact, I may be able to combine the three passions I had, medicine, technology and design. Going into bioengineering and human factors/ergonomics was a natural progression as it combined all I was ever passionate about.

What are some of the achievements of which you are most proud?  

Of course my degrees in particular as they were in a foreign language (English). And I will be very proud of the patent, which is in the process of being granted. It took a lot of hard work to get there.

I was also very proud, a few years ago, when I discovered a major flaw in an electronic circuit design, which an electronic engineer had developed for a system I was developing at the time to measure tissue compression. Although I had no formal electronic engineering education and no particular knowledge in circuit design, I managed to identify the root cause, while it had gone unnoticed by the electronic engineer himself. It showed me how multidisciplinary and cross disciplinary work and the context of use are important in identifying problems in order to improve systems and make them safer. 

What do you most enjoy about your current role?

The freedom to do the work I enjoy most. Being able to combine all my interest in my day to day work. I also love learning new things every day across disciplines.

What have you learned about the (changing) rules of business over the last few decades?  

My current role is in academia which means I might not have a great insight in this. However I worked in the industry for a while before going into academia and I have been engaged in a number of industry collaboration and research projects. From this outside observer side it seems to me that there is a shift from specialism to cross-disciplinary thinking and teamwork. I also observed that there are still challenges to make a multidisciplinary teams really work, in particular speaking and understanding a common language and the willingness of some team members to engage in this process. I very much welcome the development toward multidiscipline teams as it facilitates solving of complex problems. Hopefully as multidisciplinary teams become more and more important, the willingness of people to engage in the process will also increase.

Describe a typical working day.

There is no typical workday. How the day is structured depends on whether or not I’m doing a research project and what stage it’s at. Sometimes this requires being in the lab to record data, or in the office to analyse data, or visit hospitals to plan studies and test equipment. The only routine I have is to wake up early, I will usually start checking emails around 5am and start planning the day, I reply to emails before 8am. After that I will review what tasks are lined up for the day, the schedule and how to organise things best to optimise the time available. As I love to learn new things and have many interests, I am always keen to plan the day in such a way as to combine things, save time and maximise output.

What are the key staples of your working wardrobe?

Tailored navy blazer, chinos or jeans and leather loafers (I love high heels but they’re not practical in an engineering environment!). That template will suit most occasions, the more and less formal ones, while allowing enough freedom of movement when attending to systems or machinery.

What would your advice be to others hoping to have a career in tech?

Stay true to yourself, welcome advice but carefully evaluate it. If you have a gut feeling something is not right it probably is not right. Be persistent, don’t give up easily. When you think something is worth pursuing, go for it, after you have carefully evaluated the pros and cons, even if you encounter barriers and resistance from others. Persevere.

Do you notice a lack of women in technology? If so, why do you think that’s the case?

While I do see quite high numbers of women in first year engineering and computer science degrees in Ireland compared to Germany for example, this does not seem to translate higher numbers of women in key decision making roles. I feel that women in engineering and tech are still pushed into a corner, working in engineering jobs, which are traditionally being more associated with female traits, for example being good in writing, language etc. I have met a lot of female engineers throughout my career, most of them were not doing traditional engineering jobs, but were working in engineering legislation, patent, regulations, standards or being assigned to write project reports or doing project management. So the traditional tech jobs are still, I feel, dominated by men.

What do you perceive as being the biggest barrier (if any) for women entering the tech industry and how do you think these barriers can be overcome?

The still somewhat traditional upbringing of girls. Though it has changed over the years. I remember I had to overcome huge obstacles and show a very strong will as a child and teenager, not being deterred by the discouragement I got when I demonstrated my interest in technology at an early age. One has to be very persistent and strong minded. I was always gently nudged into more “girly” activities. We need to remove the bias in traditional upbringing, to not preselect toys or books for girls and boys thinking they are adequate for either girls or boys. Rather we should let them chose themselves, observe their interest and then support those. To make this happen though we also need to become consciously aware of this behaviour. Parents unconsciously act on conventions they have learned when they were brought up without realising there that they are applying this bias.

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