The CTO at GE Renewable Energy on working her way up to the C-suite, hiring more women in tech, and overcoming imposter syndrome as a leader

Danielle Merfeld

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Danielle Merfeld has been the chief technology officer at GE Renewable Energy, which has nearly 40,000 employees in more than 80 countries, since 2017. This means that she’s responsible for managing 6,200 engineers and technologists on any given day. 

Working in different divisions of GE, including as a solar business leader and global research vice president, and having been immersed in this space for over 12 years — all of that time at GE — she noted that most people outside the renewable energy sector are not aware of how much has changed.

“It has happened so fast in the last several years,” Merfeld told Insider. “It’s sort of snuck up on everyone.”

Almost 70% percent of the new energy capacity being installed every year is renewable energy, she explained. According to the International Renewable Energy Agency, nearly two-thirds of all new power generation capacity added in 2018 was from renewables. Meanwhile, GE and some of the world’s other top manufacturing companies are racing to see who can build the most powerful offshore wind turbine.

“Every time you see costs decreasing and performance increasing regularly year over year over year, all of a sudden you wake up and you’ve got the most affordable source of energy on the planet,” she said. She argued that the rise in renewable energy isn’t just policy- and environmentally-driven — “it’s actually a real economic decision that people are making,” she said.  

But as passionate about renewable energy Merfeld is, she’s just as adamant about women leadership and representation in her field.

“There are more women going to college than ever before in real numbers and in terms of the ratios of men and women, but women are not choosing to go into science and technology at the same rate as we did 20 years ago,” she said. Merfeld has a BS from the University of Notre Dame and a PhD from Northwestern University, both in electrical engineering. 

One problem, as Merfeld sees it, is biases in the systems that tech companies use to recruit and promote employees. For example, the description of a job that might be seen as typically filled by a man might contain sports metaphors or use more aggressive language.

“This might reduce interest by women who are qualified and might otherwise be good candidates, leading them not to apply,” Merfeld said. “These kinds of unintended, or unconsciously intended, consequences can happen at almost every stage of a career.”

Merfeld shared with Insider how she overcame these obstacles to build a successful career in tech.

Moving up and fighting doubts 

As CTO, Merfeld oversees technology development for renewable generation systems, such as onshore and offshore wind turbines, solar and hydropower, and batteries and grid management systems. 

Of course, it was a climb to get to this point, and Merfeld didn’t hesitate in her quest to excel in science and tech. As a freshman at Notre Dame, she asked the electrical engineering dean if she could help do laboratory research in a lab at Notre Dame to fulfill her work-study requirement, instead of in a cafeteria, and got the job. 

“That gave me this very early look into the life of someone doing research,” she said. “It’s easy to be intimidated as a young woman thinking about getting a higher degree in a technology space. But meeting with graduate students and seeing their day-to-day work, and seeing that they were just regular people, too — I realized that I could do that, too.”

And yet, even with her eventually stellar academic credentials and steady career advancement, there were doubts.

“The biggest thing that I had to overcome were my own feelings of inadequacy because, as I moved into new roles, there was always a big expansion of what I should be good at,” Merfeld said. “And especially having a PhD, I always measured myself on a scale of, how much did I know, how much of an expert was I in something.”

She suggested that sometimes you just need to know what you don’t know. Early on in her career, she took a position where she moved into a leadership role that was relatively broad. “There was no way I could learn all this stuff and be the expert,” she said. “I was supposed to be the leader of the team, not the smartest person on the teams. It took me a little while to realize that.”

Believing in yourself and overcoming systemic bias

Awareness of unconscious bias is important to combat gender inequalities in tech, Merfeld emphasized, but so are systematic changes. This includes ensuring there are women are on the slate of candidates and on the interviewing team when hiring and using a standard set of questions where responses to each question are evaluated and scored in real time throughout the interview. 

“We are encouraged to think through what biases we might be bringing into our decision-making and focus on the overall balance of skills that are needed for each role,” she said about GE’s hiring process specifically.

She added that women should be confident that they can (and will) succeed in a tech role.

“Women typically exhibit more empathy, they’re really good [at] communicating and networking within a group and finding ways to collaborate,” she said. “Those are all more important in tech than ever before because we have such complicated systems-level problems.

“There’s never one person who’s going to be able to solve a problem or build the next generation of tech,” she added. “It’s going to require a team and it’s going to require thoughtful collaboration and empathy with the end user and the customer.

And women bring those capabilities, she said, and “more naturally develop them through the shaping they experience growing up. So, lean into that.”

This article was originally published on Insider November 11, 2019.

SEE ALSO: I’m a headhunter with 34 years of leadership experience who’s placed female executives at Fortune 500 companies. Here’s what it takes to break through the glass ceiling.

READ MORE: An engineer who spent 15 years working at Apple shares what it takes to land a role at the tech giant, where engineers are paid over $100,000 a year

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