Join Sphera Chief Marketing Officer Lisa Farrar for a discussion on women and girls in STEM with guests Susan Brennan, president of Susan Brennan Leadership and former CEO of Romeo Power, Julia Goerke, a consulting director at Sphera, and Gayatri Shenoy, director of software engineering for Cars.com. 

The following transcript was edited for style, length and clarity.

Lisa Farrar: 

Welcome to the SpheraNOW ESG Podcast, a program focused on safety, sustainability and productivity topics. I’m Lisa Farrar, Sphera’s chief marketing officer. In recognition of the U.N.’s International Day of Women and Girls in Science on February 11th, 2023, we’re celebrating the contributions of women in science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM.  

The International Day of Women and Girls in Science was established in 2015 by the U.N. General Assembly and highlights the importance of achieving gender equality in STEM, as well as “full and equal access to and participation” in STEM for women and girls.  

We’ve assembled a thought-provoking panel of accomplished women in STEM to discuss the impact of women in their fields, how to get more women and girls involved in STEM and more. 

Before we get started, I’d like to invite our panelists to introduce themselves. Susan Brennan, would you mind introducing yourself? 

Susan Brennan: 

I’m Susan Brennan, and I have been a proponent for the inclusion of women and girls in STEM for my entire career, including being an advocate for myself. I’ve spent 25 years in the U.S. auto industry and global auto industry, and that’s where I met Lisa. I was the chief operating officer at Bloom Energy, and I’m the former CEO of Romeo Power, which was a heavy-duty battery for commercial vehicles, marine and off highway.  

I’ve spent my career in tech and have been the sponsor of many women back in the day. I think they’re called resource groups now, but I worked on bringing women together in the workplace to both support women and give back.  

I’ve been in the workplace a long time, and there were many trailblazers who helped blaze the trail for me, and I’m grateful to be able to give back to the women before me. 

Lisa Farrar: 

Thank you, Susan. And to your point, I have felt the benefit of the resource groups that Susan has stood on, not only at Nissan, but also when we facilitated a large Girls in Science Day in Middle Tennessee. Thank you, Susan. We’re excited to have you here. 

Lisa Farrar: 

Next up I’ve got Julia Goerke. Julia is a colleague of mine here at Sphera. Would you mind introducing yourself? 

Julia Goerke: 

My name is Julia Goerke. I’m a consulting director based in Sphera’s Stuttgart office in Germany. I’m a chemical engineer and started my career 30 years ago. My first job was in a waste management company. 

I was responsible for the coordination of the collection, sorting and transportation of hazardous waste. At that time, I was the only woman among 20 truck drivers and my boss. We had a great working atmosphere, and they were all very nice to me as a young engineer starting out in my career. In 1998, I changed my job. I started as a project engineer in a testing and research institute. 

Here my focus was on recycling technologies for floor coverings and life cycle assessment (LCA). My work experience in LCA was the reason why Sphera hired me in 2011. I started on the building and construction team. Back then, the team was only women, and today I am the building and construction team lead.  

I have a bit of STEM at home. My husband is a mathematician, and my son is studying math. I’d say that is enough STEM people in one family, and I’m glad that my younger son applied to become a physical therapist. 

Lisa Farrar: 

And Julia, you not only practice what you do in terms of life cycle assessments here at Sphera during the day, but you also serve on a number of organizations that help craft the regulation and industry standards for total carbon emissions. I feel you were a little humble there in your introduction. Do you want to share that anecdote? 

Julia Goerke: 

Yeah, so I’m leading one of the European standardization bodies for sustainable buildings. I’m called the convener of one of the technical committees. This is an additional role that I have. 

Lisa Farrar: 

And last, but certainly not least, Gayatri Shenoy of Cars.com. Gayatri and I had the pleasure of working together on many different tech projects while I was over at Cars.com. But Gayatri, tell me what you’re up to. Share a little bit about your experience and your background in STEM. 

Gayatri Shenoy: 

I’m Gayatri Shenoy. I’m the director of software engineering at Cars.com. I primarily run the Salesforce CRM practice for Cars.com. I’ve been in the technology industry for about 18 or 19 years now. I started my career in traditional project management.  

I have a background in computer engineering, and pretty early on in my career, I just loved everything about technology, including running mid-size projects and large-scale implementations. I moved into agile practices and agile coaching, so I’ve always had a passion for mentorship and building high performing teams. 

I was the chairperson for our Women in Leadership ERG (employee resource group) at Cars.com for two years in a row. And that was a wonderful experience, which taught me how to lead, how to serve, and stay very close to women’s issues and help women navigate the corporate ladder. 

On the personal front, I’m a mom. I have a two-and-a-half-year-old, very active little boy. I think he’s showing all the signs of someone in STEM, because he’s breaking everything in our house and just tearing everything apart. And my other passions include travel, health and fitness and real estate. But yeah, technology’s at the forefront of pretty much everything. 

Lisa Farrar: 

Thank you, Gayatri. With that, Susan, I don’t want your children to feel left out. Do you want to mention your children? 

Susan Brennan: 

Yes, so I have two children that I’m very proud of. I have two daughters. One lives in Campbell, California, and is fully launched and out on her own. And the other one is a junior at Parsons Paris and is doing a study abroad in the U.S. So, she’ll be graduating soon. And both of them were heavily into robotics. I’ll give a shout out for FIRST Robotics and BEST Robotics in Middle Tennessee and the opportunities for young people. 

And I hope either the parents of young girls, or if there are young girls listening to this and they are interested in STEM, look into those different robotics opportunities, both FIRST and BEST. I think there’s also VEX. But you can do marketing in those too. All of those teams have marketing managers. My youngest went to an all-girls school, so girls ran the entire team and they did all of the pieces. It’s even more exciting, I think, to have an all-girls team.  

Lisa Farrar: 

Thank you all for your introductions and for joining me on today’s podcast. With those introductions out of the way, let’s jump into our first question, which I will direct to all of our panelists. Over the course of your career, how have you seen the impact of women in your field change, and how do you expect or hope to see it change in the future? I’m going to start with Susan again for question one. 

Susan Brennan: 

I was, early in my career, the only woman in the room, and I think many of us have had that experience. And as I’ve been in the workforce now for over 30 years, I’ve seen more women in places, more women in meetings and more women in leadership. But, as late as 10 years ago, when I left the auto industry, there were still meetings where I was the only woman in the room. I look forward to all of the industries catching up. When I got into tech and got into energy and batteries, I saw many, many more women. 

The science says, “when you can see it, you can be it.” And I’m really looking forward to seeing a really big wave of young people, especially young women, coming into the STEM field. I personally see many more women on social media—in places where young people pay attention—as leaders in these fields. You don’t necessarily have to be a leader—you can be a participant in the field as well. 

Lisa Farrar: 

Given Susan’s response just now, I’ll flip this over to you Gayatri, since you are an engineering leader of many teams. Over the course of your career, how have you seen the impact in your field change? How would you expect or hope for it to change in the future? 

Gayatri Shenoy: 

About 10 years back, if you looked around the room, there were still maybe two women for every 10 male colleagues. And initially you don’t think about it as much, but as you are trying to grow, you start to see that we need more voices and representation. I do feel that we have been taking a lot of steps in the industry itself. The numbers are getting better for women in tech, but if you see just the statistics from last year, the percentage of women in large tech companies is still at around 25%. 

It’s about a two, two-and-a-half-percent increase from prior years. I mean, it seems small, but it’s still in the right direction. Women in leadership roles in tech is still less than 20%. There are still not enough equal voices, and there’s even less for women of color and minority groups. In general, there’s a lot of work still to be done in this industry, though I’m pretty proud to see that the right strides are being made and that improvements have taken place. 

Lisa Farrar: 

And over to you. Julia, how about you? Over the course of your career, how have you seen the impact of women in your field change? 

Julia Goerke: 

There are larger numbers of women now in STEM. Except in my first job in this waste management company where I was the only woman, I have always worked together with women. There are very often women working in laboratories.  

But in preparation for this podcast, I also had a look at the statistics and it’s really astonishing that in Germany, only 10% of those working in engineering are women. So, I think there is still something that we need to do to motivate and promote STEM for girls. Young boys and girls have the same skills in terms of mathematics or science, and it’s just a matter of bringing girls into STEM professions. 

Lisa Farrar: 

Gayatri, you mentioned that you’re a mom, and Susan shared earlier that one of the benefits to the robotics team that her younger daughter participated in was the fact that she went to an all-girls program. Knowing that that’s not in everyone’s life or their school situation, what do you think will be one of the most effective ways to get more girls and women involved in STEM in the future? 

Gayatri Shenoy: 

Yeah, so I think that if you want to change perceptions about a career, first of all, girls need to know that careers in STEM exist and they need to understand what they’re all about. I think we really need more programs to teach just younger girls. If you’re talking about tech, somehow there’s this perception that tech is only programming related, which it’s not. There’s so much in the world of tech—product development, marketing, testing, anything.  

I think we just need to really encourage and push for not just training young girls in schools, but for the teachers and administrators. And if they are taught about providing more encouragement and exposure to STEM equally for boys and girls from a young age, I think that will give girls all the confidence they need. 

There are a lot of myths about STEM—that it’s very competitive, it’s only for grade A students—and none of that is really true. I think it’s just about constantly providing that exposure, which I feel will help get girls more involved. A lot of companies are providing internships and apprenticeships to try to attract more female talent.  

And like I was saying, STEM has this perception of being a very competitive field, and it’s only for the toughest candidates. But STEM is all about experimenting, patience and dedication. You have to put in long hours and due diligence. None of these are gender-specific traits. As long as you’re willing to put in the work, STEM could be the right career path for you. I think the more that we encourage those traits starting at a very young age, that will open up more doors, especially for younger girls in STEM. 

Lisa Farrar: 

I agree. I think the young age is pivotal in exposing them. At age eight or nine, sadly, girls become more aware of social norms. Julia or Susan, have you seen that shift where one of your daughters or girls have become resigned and then are not as encouraged to go further in a STEM field at a very young age? And do you have any additional thoughts to add to what Gayatri just shared about effective ways to get more women and girls involved in STEM? 

Susan Brennan: 

The Southern Automotive Women’s Forum, which Lisa is a member of, is an organization for professional development of women and to support girls in STEM. The signature program we do is called All Girls Auto Know. It’s specifically focused on middle school girls and early on, we had professors from Middle Tennessee State University on the board.  

The data and the research show that by the time a girl comes out of middle school, if she is not convinced that she can go into a STEM field, the likelihood is exceptionally low that she will go into a STEM field. You really have to get the hearts and minds early. 

The volunteer organization that we do is focused very heavily on middle school girls in robotics teams. For example, if there’s a school that has a middle school team and a high school team, if the high schoolers had not started in the middle school, they usually drop out of the team.  

I think in this case it’s really important to have the data and then focus the resources on where the most impact will be. And at least this has been my experience with middle school girls. 

Julia Goerke: 

I think time and use are very important. If the next generation is not encouraged and motivated and has no role models, then it’s like in sports. We can’t expect gold medals at the Olympics if we are not focusing on the younger generation. 

Lisa Farrar: 

Yeah, absolutely. 

Gayatri Shenoy: 

If your teachers and administrators are not properly equipped to consciously provide more exposure equally to boys and girls and then keep providing that encouragement, I think that’s a missed opportunity at that very tender age when they’re in middle school. 

Lisa Farrar: 

Julia, my next question I’ve got ready for you is: What role have other women in STEM played in your career? You mentioned a few moments ago that you always associated with women in the laboratory environment. I’m sure that was just one case in point.  

Julia Goerke: 

I went to a girl’s high school and there was no gender differentiation in STEM subjects. Our math class, for instance, had 20 students and we had a female math teacher and a female chemistry teacher. Even back then, these teachers were happy if you had a technical career aspiration. And at school there were also working groups with excursions to sewage treatment plants or large-scale research facilities located nearby. It was these surroundings, environments and teachers who were role models for me in my career choice. 

Additionally, at that time, my sister was already in Berlin studying surveying engineering. So, for me, it was pretty normal that women can study STEM. Later I worked in teams where it didn’t matter whether you were a woman or a man. And over the past 30 years, I’ve had great bosses and mentors, both women and men. In my opinion, it is important to have role models in youth. In the work environment, a good mix of men and women makes a team successful. And I see this every day in my team here at Sphera. But I think it’s important to have some role models when you are young. 

Lisa Farrar: 

Gayatri or Susan, would anyone like to bolt onto that the roles women in STEM have played in your careers? 

Susan Brennan: 

I’ve found the most important role that I can play, and that has been played for me, is being a sponsor. There’s a lot of focus on mentorship, and I won’t discount mentorship. I’m actually a mentor for WRISE (Women of Renewable Industries and Sustainable Energy). But the need for women “to be in the room where it happens,” to quote the Hamilton phrase, is exceptionally important.  

I was able to change outcomes because I was in the room. I want to make sure that I’m an advocate for the role of sponsors. Women in the workforce today have to take care of each other, and women have to support other women. And it’s really, really important that you’re a sponsor for other women. 

And if there are stereotypes like, “We shouldn’t consider her for this role because she just had a baby”—let that woman be the one to turn it down. If the person is the right person for the job, let that person make their own life decisions. So, it’s kind of the X, Y and Z axes. The Z axis is the person making their own personal decision. But if the data says they are the right person for the job, give them that opportunity, and then don’t punish them if they say, “No this isn’t the right time for it.” Don’t push them aside, make sure that they stay elevated. But I just want to put a plug in for sponsorship. I really think it’s the difference between success and failure. 

Lisa Farrar: 

Gayatri, what is one of the best pieces of advice you’ve gotten for pursuing a career in STEM? What advice would you give to other women? 

Gayatri Shenoy: 

One of the best pieces of advice I got at a pretty young age was from my dad. He said, “Be open-minded. Give everything a try before you decide it’s not for you.” Because I was at that age where I’m like, “Oh, I don’t know. What do I want to do? What do I like? I’m not sure.” And he said, “Be open-minded.” And that just stuck with me.  

And I’ve passed that advice down to other girls and other women as well at work. Be open-minded, try it out. If nothing else, you will at least know, “this is not for me.” You can make a whole list of things that you don’t like. But if you don’t try, you’re just never going to know. I think that’s kind of gotten me through a lot of different career moves and risk-taking as well, just being open-minded. 

And one more thing which always stuck with me was, don’t be afraid to fail. If you’re not going to try, you don’t know if you’re going to succeed. You may fail. Everyone is going to go through this at some point in time. So, you just keep taking action, learning from it and building that confidence over and over based on your learnings. That’s something that’s worked for me, and it’s something that I always like to pass on to other colleagues or girls if they ask for advice. 

Lisa Farrar: 

Absolutely. And I think there’s a lot of trial and error and failing fast in science in general, or even in marketing as we’re deploying a campaign. Oftentimes we only discuss success. Can we go a little deeper into this one? Feel free to share a time when you failed. How did you pick yourself back up? Did anyone help you? Did they give you encouragement? 

Gayatri Shenoy: 

There was a project I was working on that did not go the way we intended it to go, even with all the best efforts and lots of hours behind it. It just wasn’t received the way we intended it to be. The results were not there. It’s easy to get sucked in by something like that. You start to think, “What do you mean this project is not a success? It’s a failure?” And then you start to associate yourself with that. I definitely learned a lot from it. It’s important to consider: “What can I take away from this situation? What would I do differently if I could start all over again?” 

Once you start to get into that growth mindset, you realize that it’s just a learning experience and a steppingstone in the right direction. I’ve learned from it. I’ve come out the other side. There’s some things that went really well, so it’s easy to repeat those. I think that just stopping, getting out of that little bit of a pity party for a while and realizing that there’s so many learnings here. It makes you a stronger leader and makes you stronger at what you do. And so that’s why I keep front and center that failure is not something to be afraid of. Not taking action is what you should be afraid of. You want to make sure you try, fail and learn from it.  

Lisa Farrar: 

Absolutely. Thank you for sharing that moment. How about you, Susan? What is one of the best pieces of advice you’ve gotten for pursuing a career in STEM, and what advice would you give to other women? 

Susan Brennan: 

I have to set the context because I think about this often. When I graduated from high school, women could be secretaries, nurses or teachers. And I was very different. Especially in the seventies going through middle school and high school, I was outside of the norm. And if you think about secretaries and nurses and teachers, they need to know science and math. It was kind of an unintended way of getting women into the STEM fields. 

But I would say the advice that I got was almost in an opposite way. I grew up in a steel town, a blue-collar town where it may not be good for the economy and not good for the community, but if you show an aptitude for STEM, people push you and want you to move on. 

I had this invisible force that pushed me through my middle school and high school and into college to study. I wanted to be a genetic engineer, which was something completely out of the norm for the world that I lived in and the people I knew. 

The best advice I got was, because I grew up in a mill town, was to become an engineer and get something that has a certificate, like a professional engineer. Even though I didn’t take that path, I still think that’s not a bad way to give advice to people. 

If you’re going to follow your passion, try to also follow it in a way where there are career options for you. There will always be a place for professional engineers. There’ll always be a place for certain careers. 

I think it’s an “and” discussion. Follow your passion in STEM but think along the way if there are certificates you can get that that give you a little extra cushion in uncertain times. This has really been my path. My dad died when I was five of a congenital heart condition, and my brain thinks in patterns and in problem solving. 

I think the most important thing is to know what you do well and you should do what you do well. And to know how you think, and to know what drives you. But I had a huge passion because of the personal tragedy that I had. Hopefully, my goal back then and still today was to not come into STEM out of personal tragedy, but come at it from a place of passion, then funnel it into a place where you can really make a difference and be as open as possible.  

I went from research in the labs, into automotive, into energy. I’ve moved, traveled the world, moved in different companies and in different roles. I feel bad today for young people because a lot of them come to me and they’re like, “My parents want me to know exactly what I want to do.” 

I say, “Tell them you talked to a microbiologist who builds cars and is very successful and tell them that it’s all going to be okay.” 

I always tell people that I wish I was 20 years younger because this huge inflection point of change is coming. And I intend to work. I don’t ever actually intend to retire because I’m so excited about what’s going on today. Taking those boundaries that people somehow either are given by society, given by their families, given by themselves, give yourself some guardrails, but go for it. 

Lisa Farrar: 

Absolutely. I love that—being open and allowing experience, coupled with certifications and creds that you need to get to help carry you as well. But I think we oftentimes, to your point, Susan, feel this burden of, you go to college at 18 and you have to pick a major or you have to pick a major before you even show up. So, Julia, back over to your question, what are some of the barriers that women must overcome to achieve success in your field?  

Julia Goerke: 

The barrier is bias. So, “girls are good in languages, boys are good in math.” This is at least what I often heard in the past and sometimes today. This hurdle needs to be overcome when choosing a career in STEM. So, my advice is, girls, if you are interested in technology and in math, dare to go into a STEM field. In Germany, we have, for instance, the Girls’ Day, every April. So once a year, girls can get a taste of technical professions by a one-day internship. And by the way, there is the same for boys in social professions. And I think this can be helpful in order to experience if STEM is something for that girl. 

Lisa Farrar: 

Would anyone else like to share any barriers that we must overcome or any barriers you’ve overcome? 

Gayatri Shenoy: 

One of the common things that I hear of, and I’ve heard this from friends of mine in a similar profession, and in various tech roles as well, is always being asked, “What about your family and what about your work? How will you balance both? Are you sure you can do it? Will the family get neglected because you’re spending so many hours at your profession, in technology?”  

And I think some of that is just limiting beliefs. Because with the right support system, anything is possible. But I think when there’s those type of questions or decisions that people are thrown that they have to make so early on in their careers too, it might discourage women from pursuing higher positions and advancing their careers. When it comes to some of those barriers and those social norms, I think that narrative needs to change. 

The question should be, “How can we support you?” and, “How can we give you the flexibility so you can have a family life, you can have a work life, you can have kids, you can have pets, you can be a caregiver, but you could also be a great professional who is passionate about their work and is a contributing member?” I feel passionately about this. Women are always made to choose, and men aren’t asked any of these questions. 

Susan Brennan:  

I’m from the generation where I saw a lot of women before me not have children for exactly this reason because they didn’t feel like they could have a career. I feel very passionate about this because I came of age in the sixties and the seventies when so many changes occurred. And today those same conversations are happening. I think they’re just happening in a different way.  

When I started in the workforce, I looked like I was 12. People would come up to me and say, “I’m not going to work for you because you’re a woman,” or “I don’t like working for you because you’re a woman.” And I knew exactly where they were coming from. They told me exactly how they felt, and I had a lot of them apologize after a while. But it was a very overt, confrontational conversation. 

And today, I believe those same norms and values are still in the workplace in a different way and maybe much less overt. But as long as those values continue to exist in the workplace, I put the onus on women’s sponsors and men’s sponsors and pulling women through and figuring out how do you work. 

I don’t believe in work-life balance, I’ve never had it, but other people have. I also grew up very poor and didn’t want it. I wanted the certainty of always having a paycheck. So, I worked until the last day and gave birth, and went back into the workplace. My hope in all of this is that I don’t see women working up till the last day. And I don’t see women coming back immediately. And I do see women coming back into the job that they left when they had a child, and they still have a career. 

The generation I grew up in, if a man would’ve taken paternity leave, I believe that would’ve been the end of his career too. I don’t even think it was a term that existed, much less a practice that would’ve been supported. So, I see green shoots, and I think as long as those green shoots continue to get sunlight and are able to grow, that can break down some of those barriers.

Gayatri Shenoy: 

About 50% of women in the tech sector still quit their jobs around age 35. And for the same reason. It’s because of weak management support. Maybe their companies just don’t support that kind of environment. Personally, I have gone through it. I have a young child, but I had the luxury of working for a wonderful company like Cars.com, which gave me generous maternity leave. 

I was able to come back to such a supportive environment and ease my way back to work. And the whole team made the transition so easy. And I just want that for more women. And I think that will help encourage more women to not quit, just having that support from their management. 

Julia Goerke:  

For Germany, I can say that the family situation has really changed. There are fathers as well as mothers that take parental leave. It’s not completely balanced, but I think it’s going in the right direction. 

Lisa Farrar: 

I was jotting down themes as we all got together today, and this is not an exhaustive list by any stretch of the imagination: being open, starting young, it’s never too early to start with our girls in STEM and having not only advocacy, but also sponsorship. Gayatri, when you just shared that 50% of women step away from tech careers, it’s hard to advance if you take 50% of your population out and they can’t continue to rise in their tech careers. 

That really breaks my heart. But having that sponsorship and having that sense of supporting your colleagues, having a community around you to make foreseeably taking some time away and coming back easier is so important. 

I loved when Susan shared the story about professional certifications. This is not an “or” conversation. We need to live in the land of “and.” And then just acknowledging that there are still barriers and we, through support and awareness, can overcome these barriers. That rounds out our formal conversation. Does anyone have any last-minute thoughts that they’d like to share with our audience before we wrap up? 

Julia Goerke: 

First, I would like to say it was great to exchange ideas with you and to listen to your thoughts. And I’m convinced that young women need role models and should know more about STEM jobs. And I have an idea, maybe as a resolution for the new year. Because my brother is a physicist and he gave a lecture about physics at his former high school just two weeks ago—maybe I should do the same. My idea is to go to my former girls’ high school and report about my experience in choosing a career in STEM. And as I said before, I think it’s like in sports, if the next generation isn’t supported, then at some point there will be a lack of young talents. 

Lisa Farrar: 

Absolutely. Thank you, Julia. 

Susan Brennan: 

Yeah, and Lisa, I want to thank you for getting all this together. And I really do hope that the people who listen to this learned something about women who have been in the workplace, that they apply it. But I do hope that they go back and view themselves as sponsors in the workforce, no matter what level they are at in the workplace. You may not be able to influence things today but try to think of yourself as a sponsor or a support person for other women who are in the workplace. 

And then to Julia’s point, I’ll put in a plug for anybody that wants to join or support the Southern Automotive Women’s Forum, because our goal is to be role models. It’s focused on a very narrow part of the world—young girls and women in the Southeast United States—but there are so many organizations like that where it’s really sweat equity. And when you put that sweat equity in you make a huge difference in the world. 

Lisa Farrar: 

Absolutely. Thank you, Susan.  

Gayatri Shenoy: 

Thank you for such a great conversation, and everyone just sharing your stories and allowing me to share my stories. The only thing I would add is that it’s best for us to lead by example and to actually help make a difference in our own communities, whether it’s with our daughters and nieces at home, or whether it’s just being involved in organizations. But I think it’s important that if these are topics that we can help make a difference from our own experience, that we should actually be out there trying to make a difference in a more practical way by mentoring and being an example to younger girls.  

Lisa Farrar: 

Thank you. And that wraps up today’s podcast. We hope that you have a fantastic International Day of Women and Girls in Science on February 11th, and we look forward to talking to you soon. Take care. 

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