Jenine Beekhhuyzen, Making a Difference in Australia and Beyond

Dr. Jenine Beekhuyzen (pronounced ‘Bake-how-zen’), author of “Tech Girls are Chic (not just Geek)”, a book which presents stories of women in the IT industry as “superheroes”, is a long-time advocate for improving the representation of women in the IT industry. In 2013 she started the playful and comic-genre inspired Tech Girls Movement, a non-profit organisation whose goal is to support the development of a more diverse IT force. She even has her own Superhero avatar:

What was the idea, or inspiration, behind your book “Tech Girls are Chic”?

Being one of a few girls in my Information Technology degree, I began volunteering to coordinate and run a local Brisbane event named ‘Technology Takes You Anywhere’ which brought up to 1200 school girls to a university campus to learn all about technology and participate in sessions run by positive female role models. This event was very successful for a number of years, however I wanted participants to take something home with them to discuss with their parents and friends, thus the idea for ‘Tech Girls Are Chic’ (which came to be known as the “pink” book) was born. Creating a hard copy book with a variety of tech role models mostly in non-technical roles was aimed to create awareness of the range of tech roles available, and to get girls who wouldn’t traditionally consider a career in tech to think about it. The “pink” book was purposely girly and 20 000 copies were distributed free across Australia from 2008. I have since had girls approach me to say they are now studying technology courses at university after reading the “pink” book in high school. This motivated me to produce ‘Tech Girls Are Superheroes’ 6 years later.

So many years on after you started, what do you think are still the biggest barriers that young girls face in either becoming or staying interested in IT as a career option?

Our research has found two main reasons girls are not interested in technology careers. One is the lack of visible female role models to look up to. The other is an unclear understanding of what tech roles are available and what people in tech actually do. There is evidence we lose their interest from Year 4, and this is due to negative media images, the way the technology curriculum is taught in schools, the limited number of inspiring tech teachers in the classroom, boys taking over tech from girls in the classroom etc. There is anecdotal evidence that girls who attend single sex schools are more likely to enter technology careers, in part due to the lack of competition with boys over the technology in the classroom. The National Centre for Women in Technology (US - NCWIT) has a great report on girls and ICTs which outlines the many reasons girls are not attracted to technology, and it suggests strategies forward.

The Tech Girls are Superheroes book is in now in its 2nd year; tell us more about using the comic book genre and storytelling techniques to carry this powerful message about diversity in IT?

Everybody wants to be a superhero huh? :) Superheroes have that one great power that gets them through the tough times, but they certainly aren’t good at everything. I feel this way about working in tech and thought it would be a fun way to engage young girls to think about how they can change the world with technology. Stories are a powerful way to get a message across, and I’ve always been an avid reader and I find it sad that many young people don’t read books at all. So I purposely developed a hard copy, short story book with innovative and fun illustrations to showcase 25 other women that I know. These women do incredible things with technology every day to make the world a better place and we need to celebrate them.

Each of the superheroes wrote a short fiction story about how they change the world with technology, and the sister website lists what they do in real life. Some are Kung Fu masters, others are classical musicians. These women are incredibly inspiring and can be aspired to. The hard copy is also an important element. 17 000 copies have been distributed free since ‘International Women’s Day 2014’; girls love getting something personal that is theirs alone, and I sign all copies with the name of the recipient ordered on the website. Recently one mum ordered a copy for her daughter without telling her. The book arrived with the daughter’s name and she is still trying to work out where it came from! :)

You have just begun the "Australian Search for the 2015 Next Tech Girl Superhero!" Tell us more about it.

This is a very exciting program where school girls learn hands on skills to be a tech entrepreneur. I’m teaming up with Technovation in San Francisco, and I have adapted their global program for Australia. Girls from 8-17 year olds are participating from 25+ schools across Australia. Essentially girls form a team of 3-5 and get their teacher on board as a coach. They sign up and I match them with a mentor from industry who meets with the team for an hour per week. Teams work through the curriculum to develop an idea for an app, do some research on competitors and branding, create a wireframe and create their app in appinventor.

On the 30th of September 2015, all teams will upload their pitch to YouTube and present a short business plan. Last year 18 girls participated and the winner was Sara Price 12 year old who had already sold 20 000 copies of her app ‘Positive Penguins’. This year we have 135+ girls participating - next year we aim to have 500+! I’m hoping to help create the next generation of tech entrepreneurs.

What have you learnt about yourself during this process?

What a great question, a tough one! I’ve learnt that if you have lots of ideas, eventually you may have one that hits the mark! The success of the ‘Tech Girls Are Superheroes’ campaign has been incredible and I’ve learnt that it is important to be braver for 5 minutes longer than everyone else. I learnt that from the inspiring Todd Sampson, an Australian who created ‘Earth Hour’. I’m constantly learning new things about myself; not having many expectations about what I can and can’t do, I’m willing to give it all a shot! It’s amazing what you can achieve if you believe in yourself and work hard.

What are some of the collaborations between Australia and the USA in this area?

I’m still looking for ways to take the campaign to the USA. Working with the non-profit Technovation in San Francisco has given me the tools to bring the competition to Australia. I am working on creating a Superhero Academy for the Alumni of the competition to keep working together on projects and building their skills and expertise. There is scope for keen individuals / groups from the USA to get involved to help create tech activities for the girls and to be mentors. I also love the idea of DevelopHER Challenge where the focus is on building a toy/game for girls in STEM - I’d love to bring that to Australia and work together. Oh and I’m looking at bringing a STEM play here too in 2016 that was created by my US colleague, check it out if you haven’t seen it -

How can our USA readers help or collaborate?

Contact us if you want to get involved or collaborate - the Tech Girls Movement is about making positive social change and we need your help to spread the word - happy to hear your suggestions! We’d love to get our winning team in the 2015 Superhero Search to San Francisco for the World Pitch in 2016 - sponsors welcome :) I’m also trying to get on the Ellen Show - I figure if Ellen says Tech Girls are cool then girls and parents alike will listen. See the campaign here:

How can our readers help out with your initiative, of encouraging more girls to become interested in technology as a career, either directly through your organisation, or just through their own actions in the industry?

Every person can help make a difference. Offer to be a mentor, buy a young girl a cool tech toy, encourage girls you know to learn how to code, encourage them to join Technovation. Also let’s celebrate the incredible women who work in the tech industry. We rarely hear about female role models, but I think the world needs to know about Ada Lovelace, Grace Hopper, Hedy Le Marr and the countless others who have helped create the digital world we now live in. Think about how you can be braver for 5 minutes longer than everyone else :)