Female representation is increasing in the C-Suite, but the growth is a slow one and the distribution across industry and specific C-Level positions leaves much to be desired. Korn Ferry reports 25% of critical C-Level strategic roles are held by female leaders, this is a 2% increase from the reported 23% in 2018. A majority of that percentage comes from female CHRO’s, the only C-Level role in which women hold the bulk of positions.

What about Chief Technology Officers? This position is critical for businesses within the clean technology sector. With the CTO’s business knowledge and ability to align technology-related decisions, organizations create goals and policies to achieve their major strategies. In technology, this role is held by a whopping 90% of men, in the energy sector CTOs are 79% male.

When I was given the opportunity to interview a woman who holds a CTO position in a bio-technology company out of Munich, I recognized the opportunity as a unique one.

Dr. Doris Hafenbradl, PhD, is an internationally successful scientist in both bio-technology and pharmaceuticals. She has worked in the US and Europe and has held several major, senior management roles in industry-leading pharmaceutical companies. An additional feather in her cap involves her work in the lab of world-renowned and pioneer microbiologist Dr. Karl Stetter.

She is also a corporate executive for a renewable energy company, which makes her a bit of an enigma.

Dr. Hafenbradl is in every way composed. She speaks eloquently and exactly, not in a rehearsed manner, but rather in a way to be clearly understood. There is little room for confusion in her professional life. The level of distinguishment Dr. Hafenbradl has achieved in both the science world and the technology industry has required her to remain constantly vigilant.

She has held titles like Vice President, Director and Managing Director prior to becoming CTO at Electrochaea. This is by all accounts proof of competency, of her ability to lead and to innovate. So, why is there a need for vigilance from a scientist who has proven to be intelligent, capable and trustworthy since completing her doctoral research in the mid-nineties?

It seems that in the space of technology and science, there is still some unconscious need to bear witness to women continually proving their capability, while, in many cases, their male counterparts are otherwise given the keys to the castle and total, near blind confidence.

I learned something important in both the words and demeanor of Dr. Hafenbradl: it will not do to stomp your feet, shed tears and get blind with fury. Better to learn, to study, to take the gifts you’ve been given and find a good teacher. To make calculated and weighed decisions, both personally and professionally, and to remain “robust”.

Dr. Hafendbradl’s career didn’t happen by accident; she had to be robust. Powerful, sturdy, vigorous and tough: all requisite ingredients to leveraging this female scientist’s mind in the renewable energy transition.

Dr. Hafenbradl is clearly curious and innately scientific. During her academic career at the University of Regensburg she worked and studied under Dr. Karl Stetter, a legendary microbiologist by his own right. With his guidance and her interests, she spent years in the United States researching and advancing pharmaceutical drug discovery. Eventually the draw of multicultural Europe brought her home to Germany.

The cultural climate in the bio-technology industry for Germany is, of course, also different, especially as a female leader. Her resume boasts titles like Director Drug Discovery, Director Biochemical Screening, Executive Vice President Screening and Proteins and Vice President of Discovery Services. Still, Dr. Hafenbradl feels “lucky” to have found a bio-tech company that not only concerned itself with finding the right person and profile, in contrast from a male or female CTO, but also one that had an American CEO. Without this combination of balanced stakeholders, she is hesitant to believe she would have received an offer for her role.

Dr. Hafenbradl prepared herself for her roles as CTO and MD by staying in her “comfort zone”. Yes, in.

“I prefer to create rather than to maintain,” says Dr. Hafenbradl in reflection over where she is most happy and most comfortable.

Her comfort zone is in the heart of innovation, in the place where science and technology drive the world further, Dr. Hafenbradl stays in her comfort zone by relentlessly challenging herself and those around her to push further, to do better, to learn more. This hunger for growth and advancement peppered with the required, but never excessive, patience provides Dr. Hafenbradl the broad foundation of her career and the confidence that new challenges will continue to be solved.

The proof is in the proverbial pudding: Electrochaea is developing a disruptive energy storage technology for the conversion of low-cost and stranded electricity into pipeline-grade renewable gas (biomethane) for direct injection into the existing natural gas grid. It is a technology representing a commercially viable solution for utility-scale energy storage, carbon dioxide recycling, and grid balancing. This level of breakthrough scientific discovery was made possible by Dr Hafenbradl’s leadership and contributions over the last five years.

Dr. Hafenbradl demonstrates the power of diversity, not solely because she is a woman, but rather because of her international background and multicultural understanding, curiosity to work in places science fears to tread and ability to remain robust throughout a career of science and leadership that has ultimately culminated in her leadership position in driving the renewable energy transition forward.

Read more of our interview below:

When did you notice your knack or passion for science topics?

Actually, the biology/science focus happened in school, I had some really good biology teachers. I was really interested in all science topics, but particularly biology. I decided to study biology in Regensburg.

Then I met a really fantastic person there, finishing up what is now a master (previously a Diplom), which I got in Prof. Dr. Karl Stetter’s lab. He is a truly internationally renowned and inspiring personality and a bit crazy, too (Authors Note: He pioneered hypotheses that were held in virtual disbelief during his career).

He is one of the people who, where you see hot springs and environments where normally you wouldn’t expect any living organisms to exist, he was convinced that he had data that organisms live in these environments, especially at high temperatures. Where everyone said “okay, yeah,yeah, sure,” he was one of the people who dared to go out there, take samples and find these organisms.

(Dr. Stetter) really is a true explorer of completely new grounds. And he was, even at the time, very international. He was one of the people who founded a California start-up company that was based partly on microorganisms he was discovering and collecting, that were totally crazy and unique in the world. He is still at this archaea center, he started that and built that. He is really very inspiring, well networked and an expert on microbial life.

I decided I wanted to get a PhD with him, so I stayed. That’s how I got into science.

In your academic career, throughout Masters, PhD and research, was there a noticeable gender disparity?

Not in this field, biology in Germany is very female dominated. At the level of scientists. At the starting point, we were probably even 80-90% women. At the end, finishing and getting a PhD, it was mostly men, but also some women representation. But then what happens is most of the women disappear, at the time it was very difficult for women to get academic positions.

I think that may still be the case, to become a professor as a woman was very hard to do. That doesn’t mean that in biology there weren’t any women. In my age group there are in fact quite a number of women, in the biology space. When you think about industry in Germany, you didn’t really see women in leading positions, then and even today, even in the biology space, it is very male dominated (in the leading positions in the industry it is very male dominated).

How did you transition from pharmaceuticals into bio-technology?

This was a big chance for me, this start-up company that Karl Stetter co-founded was in San Diego, and I had the chance to go there and to do kind of post-doc, to try out, okay how does industry feel, and can I, would I like to come back to academia there (in the U.S.) after or would I like to stay in industry. It became very clear that I would like to stay in industry, because the research was moving so much faster. So much more funding was available, we were plowing through lots of things and it was really a lot of fun. And that was a classical bio-technology company where I learned how to take an idea, develop it further, how to move it and transition it over to the marketplace in a biotech context.

And then I moved more into the pharmaceutical side, because also my background as a microbiologist allows a couple of different options and the pharmaceutical industry is one of them. That was because there weren’t so many options in biotechnology actually available. I would say in the US at that time, there wasn’t such a huge gender problem, at least not something I experienced at the time, that company was really a mix of women and men. Although the top management was all men, the next level was really mixed.

I didn’t experience any limitations at that time. But then I came back to Germany, and there of course is a completely different situation.

Just out of curiosity why did you decide to come back to Germany? Did you miss it?

Good question, because I like the diversity of Europe. I enjoyed San Diego, but I also missed the cultural diversity, the countries are so small, and you can move across the borders and have something else in terms of food, people, even language. That was also an important part of life.

You are the Chief Technology Officer and the Managing Director; I feel like there are definitely places that they overlap or places where they’re very different. I am curious do you think you need different mindsets for these two roles?

It is no real conflict of interest and actually more levels of work that I have to do. I have to, part of my role here as the CTO, is to coordinate and look after the laboratory work and we have pilot plants in the field so its highly technical and it’s about people- managing people, getting them motivated and focused, demonstrating what we need and finding the best ways to do this.

The Managing Director part is completely different. I talk with investors or organize the company in making high-level decisions and provide the company guidance and vision to move forward.

So, it’s these different levels that have to be addressed. They are not in conflict because there is always a clear focus on what needs to be done.

I think up to this point, we’ve really seen what intelligence, grit and an innovative mindset can produce in the STEM space and specifically in Microbiology regardless of gender, but I am curious about whether you have experienced being confronted with less respect or trust as a skilled scientist than perhaps a male in the same role?

Taking this role in Germany, I was lucky, because Electrochaea has an American CEO and was looking for a profile, not a man or a woman. I don’t think I would have been able to get this position if the CEO hadn’t been American, I don’t think in a truly German company I would have been selected. So that is the first thing, the first step.

The first three years, I was not very visible for investors and large clients, because they are all focused on men. It is very visible when someone in upper management is taking a role, (for women) there is a different welcoming. Compared to males, they always question me, I have always had the feeling, and that’s going back many years, I’ve always thought I had to prove myself more than men. In the same role and that has been in the pharmaceutical industry also very apparent. I had peers in the same role, same level, that I was responsible for a certain activity, the expectation toward them on the performance was a lot lower. That is not just a feeling or a thought, in number of situations that it is very apparent.

Also, the salary differences were very apparent, it was 30%, I can confirm that. And I have not taken a break for family reasons, so I can’t say I am behind a little bit in terms of my career- I am not. At the moment it is different in my current role, but before, in Germany, 30% I can confirm that.

For me to be accepted in the role I am in now, that took a while in the overall environment. Clearly not within the company or by the CEO, but by the environment we have in clean technology, it is just not very common to have women in such a role. I had to do a lot of work to convince the people around me that I can achieve things the same way, or even better in certain areas, than a man can. But I had to do it first, there was no offering up “okay you must be good we trust you”, it was “okay show us what you can do”

That I think is the difference, you have to demonstrate that you are good enough for that role.

How do you make decisions that are high risk, in one way or another either professionally or personally, that could mean big success but also risk big failure?

Is actually a good question. The way I make decisions, I get the critical information, you can’t always have all the information and you can’t always understand everything, but I try to get to a level of information so that I am comfortable, I have to be at a level where I at least understand: What’s behind it? What is the concept? What consequences does it have?

I have to talk to people typically to try and understand it, if it is a difficult thing, I need to hear and discuss with relevant people and when possible also read it. If it is really something big I need to hear different opinions, then I make up my mind, I know why I made the decision. It is very easy for me at this point, I’ve looked at the 360 of this, what consequence it has financially, for the business, for the environment, this must be considered. I decide then because that’s my best understanding and I can stand behind it.

If my information level changes, I am also trying to be extremely open to revise that decision to say okay “I didn’t have that piece of information when I made that decision, I think we need to do it differently” and then I will make a correction, whatever that means. There is always a way to change it, as long as I can be behind that change, I’ve never had a problem to make the adjustment. I just need to get to this comfortable level and then I know the world will keep turning even if that decision may have not been the best but we are there to correct it if it has to be.

Quick Fire Questions: 

  1. The most exciting part of my job is…. diversity, in the people, topics and decision making
  2. Being a woman in CT means… you have to be robust.

Written by Maddie Walton 

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