Photo: Joachim Rode

Women need to have more self-belief

Friday 14 Jun 19
by Marianne Vang Ryde


Sara Shafiee
DTU Mechanical Engineering


Sara Shafiee is 32 years old, born in Iran and now lives in Charlottenlund, Denmark, with her Iranian husband.

  • 2017-2020: Postdoc at DTU Mechanical Engineering where she is working with configuration, and among other things, trying to introduce AI in the systems.

  • 2014–2017: Industrial PhD, IT project manager and senior consultant at Haldor Topsøe.

  • 2013: MSc in textile technology and science engineering from Isfahan University of Technology, Iran.
Sara Shafiee is a postdoc at DTU Mechanical Engineering and holds an industrial PhD. She has now been appointed as an ambassador for the InnoWomen project, which aims to encourage more women to apply for the Innovation Fund’s grants.

Young woman with long black hair, dark pretty eyes, and a winning smile. Sara Shafiee may not fit the standard prototype of an IT expert—something she experienced first-hand when faced with the task of ‘selling’ her ideas for a new product configuration system to employees at the Danish company, Haldor Topsøe.

“We think we’ve come a long way with gender equality in Denmark, but that’s not entirely true. People have a clear IT stereotype in mind and I didn’t fit the bill,” she says.

“The technical side of things was by far the easiest part. Developing a solution in the office was relatively straightforward, but selling it to the organization and getting the company’s employees to use it was a different matter altogether.”

Sara has always had a passion for the natural sciences. She has a curious mind and loves everything associated with mathematics and IT. She grew up in one of Iran’s largest cities—the beautiful old cultural city of Isfahan—in a family where almost everyone had a university education—the women too.

In Iran, education is given high priority, with women often being in the majority at the universities—something the government is trying to remedy by actually reserving places for male students. Often, women also perform best, especially within the technology subjects—a fact Sara largely attributes to the hostile sexism prevalent in Iranian society:

“It makes you angry, which spurs you on to become a success. Women therefore perform best in many areas, especially in the fields of medicine, physics, and science engineering—and many of the most successful entrepreneurs are women. But in the post-graduation world, we have to work even harder than the men. Men dominate the labour market, and it’s difficult for women to get a foot in the door. That’s why many women leave Iran once they have completed their studies.”

This also proved true for Sara. She graduated from Isfahan University of Technology in textile technology with a focus on subjects ranging from machinery for textile production and nanomaterials to bacterial filtration in swimming pools.

And gender inequality was not the only obstacle, she says. Because of the sanctions against Iran, the University could not buy the machine from Japan used for nanomanufacturing, so Sara had to build her own.

“I even had to take welding courses—the end result wasn’t pretty, but it worked. I also had to learn from scratch how to work with bacteria in the laboratory. It was all quite complicated, but it ended up being a great success. The technology was also immediately taken into use, but I never got to see it because I left the country right after my exams.”

Searched for IT projects

Sara’s husband secured a PhD position at DTU Fotonik, and Sara therefore began looking for PhD projects at DTU. She was looking for something that would have a direct impact on society—preferably IT-related—for although she had not specialized in IT systems, she had always found it one of the most exciting areas.

"If you understand how IT works, you have the tools to create almost everything imaginable, and that’s really fun because it can play a crucial role in other people’s lives."
Sara Shafiee, Postdoc at DTU Mechanical Engineering

“If you understand how IT works, you have the tools to create almost everything imaginable, and that’s really fun because it can play a crucial role in other people’s lives,” she says.

She met Professor Lars Hvam, who works with configuration at DTU Management—i.e. IT systems that facilitate the process of designing products according to customer requirements. Not exactly something that went hand in hand with Sara’s original training, but she and Lars agreed to a trial employment period, so she had a little time to familiarize herself with the subject—something she was able do surprisingly quickly.

After only a month, Lars decided decided to put her together with the company Haldor Topsøe which needed to get started with product configuration—and Sara was employed in an industrial PhD position financed by Innovation Fund Denmark.

Her task was to gather the entire production chain into a single IT system, so that—within certain practical limitations—the customer can assemble their own product. Topsøe’s products are very engineering-intensive and contain many components, so it is a huge task incorporating them into an IT system where all customer requests are integrated into a functional solution.

Nevertheless, as previously mentioned, it was not the technical challenges that proved the most difficult.

“Change is always difficult—introducing new systems and work procedures is always challenging. So you have to be very convincing if you’re going to persuade people that there are better solutions. And being a 28-year-old woman and not an old man with experience is hardly the best starting point,” says Sara.

‘Benevolent sexism’

“In Denmark, there is zero tolerance of hostile sexism. But here, you come across what I call benevolent sexism in people’s minds—e.g. the prejudice that women are not good at IT.”

Sara also had trouble finding her self-confidence, when she met the company’s sceptical employees. However, instead of giving up she decided to acquire more knowledge about management and change management, project management, and even psychology—so much so that she almost gained a new academic grounding in these subjects.

And then she took the plunge, targeting the most favourable employees and inviting them to meetings and workshops where they were able to put forward their ideas and desires for the system, writing articles on the intranet, and generally bringing an infectious commitment to the project.

“Sara is very outgoing and good at talking to people, and she even ended up turning the scepticism she encountered into an advantage,” explains supervisor Lars Hvam.

The project was not just a success at Haldor Topsøe, but resulted in two prizes—The Alexander Foss MADE Award and Innovation Fund Denmark’s Industrial Researcher Prize. And Sara has subsequently been approached by several companies seeking advice on configuration.


Innovation Fund Denmark has now appointed Sara as one of the foundation’s eight so-called InnoWomen ambassadors (website in Danish) with the aim of inspiring more talented women to apply for funding for their projects.

Initially, she was somewhat sceptical about the project and thought: will it really help? But then, in her usual systematic way, she began researching the topic and discovered some statistics that showed that role models are one of the most effective ways to get more women to study and work in IT.

“It’s very simple and very effective: ‘If she can do it, then so can I’,” says Sara.

And she is not in a moment’s doubt that diversity is important—a society that celebrates diversity will really be able to grow and flourish, she says.

“For example, it’s important to involve women’s tastes and intelligence in the IT products that are being developed. Men and women think differently and thus contribute in different ways, and diversity can be decisive for success.”

Sara is in favour of girls being encouraged from an early age to cultivate science and faith in their own abilities. From preschool and all the way up through their education, they must be told: ‘ You can, you should, you will do that!’, she says. And she will do everything she can to be a kind of natural science influencer by sharing her own journey in the technical/scientific world.

“Women must get out there and believe that they can make a positive contribution. It’s no fun having to fight your way onto the stage, but if you get up there and stay the course, you can also end up winning. I was an ordinary PhD student—not particularly successful—and if I can be accepted, so can other women. We just need to break the ice.”

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