IT gender equality advocate receives Australia Day honour

ThoughtWare Australia chief executive inducted into Order of Australia

ThoughtWare Australia chief executive and passionate IT gender equality advocate, Sonja Bernhardt.

ThoughtWare Australia chief executive and passionate IT gender equality advocate, Sonja Bernhardt.

Since 1976, the Australian Government has inducted 16,521 citizens into the general (or non-military) division of the Order of Australia. But according to ThoughtWare chief executive, Sonja Bernhardt, only 29 of those have been awarded for work in IT and telecommunications.

Bernhardt became the 30th inductee this year and, she says, the first Queensland woman to receive the honour. It is fitting, then, that the award goes to a passionate advocate of gender equality in the IT industry.

A former Mincom employee, Bernhardt founded and became chief executive of software group ThoughtWare Australia in 1999, a product she says of attempting to escape being a “typical corporate”. She also founded and presided over both the Women in IT and Australian Women in IT, Science and Engineering associations in order to consolidate programs aimed at raising awareness of gender inequality in typically male-dominated fields.

Over the years, she has also participated in global events to promote gender balance, including the controversial Screen Goddess calendar in 2007.

Now having been awarded a medal for the Order of Australia, Bernhardt joins the esteemed company of those using technology to further research in academia, improve information delivery and contribute to the development of schools.

On the eve of winning the award, Bernhardt told Computerworld Australia that information technology needed to be better recognised in its capacity to change the world. Greater use of the ageing workforce and women were key to that success.

Part of her concerns about gender equality were not so much about the lack of women overall in IT, she said, but rather the lack of female engineers, designers, architects and programmers working behind the scenes.

“To me, out of every field in IT, they are the most important areas because that’s where we will make a significant difference,” she said. “There is still a significant gap in the number of women that are attracted, and more than that, the number of women that stay in those fields and, to me, that’s very, very sad.”

Though similar attempts at building female interest in IT have been disregarded as stereotyping the gender, Bernhardt said she wanted to avoided trivialising the issue at all costs.

“It should not be perceived as a gender issue... It should be seen as an economic issue and as a participation in society issue,” she said.

“Making [equality programs] girly and pinky and all of that genderising [sic] to me will only result in trivialising. The issue is much wider than gender”

As a result of her work in encouraging female graduates to join the industry, Bernhardt has in recent years been invited to serve on United Nations committees as a way of advertising Australian technologies on a global stage and using them in poorer societies.

“I get to regularly discuss with not only Western civilizations but third world countries, things that are going on there where I can take learnings from Australia and assist there with women in poverty areas,” she said. “There’s a long, long way to go but I’m starting to see little things happening.”

Bernhardt was announced as part of the Order on Australia Day 2011, but will not be officially inducted until an award ceremony is held later this year.

Follow James Hutchinson on Twitter: @j_hutch

Follow Computerworld Australia on Twitter: @ComputerworldAU

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