Australian IT entrepreneur Sonja Bernhardt has been honoured for her contribution to the industry with a Medal of the Order of Australia as part of the Australia Day celebrations.
In addition to starting her own software development company, Bernhardt is also the founder of two not-for-profit industry groups designed to encourage women and girls into technology careers.
She began her career as a HR consultant for a software company, despite having no initial interest in IT.
“I actually did IT in my original degree and I failed it hopelessly… I watched people in my computer course at university writing computer programs for fun and I struggled to do the assignments,” Bernhardt says.
“Then when I did my post grad in human resources, I applied for a HR consultant job, which happened to be a consultant for HR software systems. I loved it and I’ve never, ever looked back.”
After being made redundant in the late 90s, Bernhardt decided to set up her own company, ThoughtWare Australia, which has since won a string of awards for its innovations.
“I realised I love having my own company and actually writing software and looking after the architecture and the future of software itself,” she says.
Bernhardt is the mastermind of various campaigns designed to encourage women into IT, including Million $ Babes, the Screen Goddess IT Calendar, and Doing IT Around the World.
She is also the founder of Women in Technology, and co-founder of Australian Women in IT and Science Entity.
Bernhardt has since removed herself from the WiT board, although she takes an active interest in its growth.
“I like to start and give something a good structure and a framework and get it going, and then hand it over for it to grow its own legs and to be able to fully develop so it has a life outside of me,” she says.
Bernhardt says despite her efforts to empower more women within IT, the industry is still perceived as a male domain.
“You will find a lot of women in areas such as project management in IT but there is still – and I imagine there is always going to be – a genuine, serious lack of women in the design of technology; in the architecture and the design and the building of software,” she says.
“It’s very, very tough for women who are in those fields and unfortunately they’re running away from it, so we’re getting less and less [women] in those key fields.”
“There is definitely not a lack of ideas, of innovation and creativity from women in the industry.”
“It’s just that the barriers from years and years ago are unfortunately still around a bit and so my advice is this: know who you are and why you are doing what you are doing.”
“Secondly, don’t be put off by any barriers or perceived barriers. Be strong, proud and firm in what you do, and just keep going.”