Princesses have their place in the world, but they’re not the role models young girls need anymore. That was the message that Dr Jenine Beekhuyzen — also known by her superhero alibi ‘Jewella’ — delivered last week at the DISRUPT.SYDNEY event, speaking about her brainchild the ‘Tech Girls Movement’.
Tech girls are superheroes — it was the name of Dr Beekhuyzen’s talk, the name of her free book for young girls, and generally speaking, a universal truth. We live in a changing world, where in just three years time we will not have a quarter of the people working in STEM fields that we need. Recruiting from the half of the population who are not traditionally targeted for these roles is an obvious way to fill this gap, but even the best efforts of big tech companies are not finding enough women trained in specialty skills to bring on board. Dr Beekhuyzen mentioned the IT class she teaches at a university when she brought up this fact, where only one out of 37 students in her current class is female.
There are a lot of factors that contribute to this unfortunate and often extreme gender split — factors that Jenine seeks to disrupt with her Tech Girls Movement. These include outdated stereotypes, traditional notions of work and the unconscious bias and gendering that unfortunately still exists in our modern society. All this adds up to a culture where many girls are setting STEM aside before they even finish high school — which is why Jenine decided to start even earlier.
Dr Beekhuyzen’s Tech Girls Movement is mainly targeted at girls in year five, but has found girls as young as five years old are also engaging enthusiastically with her program. Just as the recently trending #ILookLikeAnEngineer hashtag on Twitter did for the internet, the TGM is designed to change young girls’ perception of what a tech girl looks like. To achieve this, Jenine worked with illustrator Dan Heck to design a series of tech girl superheroes, giving the young girls she works with both a series of role models and archetypes that they can identify with. These range from ‘Flashdrive’, a fashion-forward, stiletto-wearing tech girl who flaunts her femininity, to ‘Swiss’, the tomboy who isn’t afraid to get her hands dirty and prefers to stick to jeans and a t-shirt on most days. She even includes a hero called Artifly, a tech girl with artistic flair who’s more likely to invent technology for designers, filmmakers and other arty types.
History seems to have forgotten the huge role that women have played in technology for almost two centuries, but Jenine sure hasn’t, pulling out a number of inspiring names that modern tech girls can still look to. After all, the first ever programmer was a woman — being Augusta Ada King, Countess of Lovelace, who wrote the first algorithm intended to be carried out by a machine all the way back in 1840. Computer Scientist and US Navy Rear Admiral, Grace Hopper — also known as ‘Amazing Grace’ — also invented the first compiler for a programming language.
With all these inspiring role models behind us, Jenine is looking for the world’s next ‘Amazing Grace’ with a competition she calls the “Search For The Next Tech Girl Superhero”. This isn’t just a competition, it also provides regular online coding classes that progressively teach the girls (who enter in teams of five) how to make an app. They’re also given a theme to work towards — this year, for example, the girls were asked to solve a problem in their local community. Final submissions are due to be handed in soon, at the end of September, when an overall winner will be picked by the judges. Last year’s competition was a major success, when 12 year old Sara Price (AKA ‘Enthusiastica’) won first place with ‘Positive Penguins’, a mindfulness app that helps young children to work through feelings of stress, anxiety and negativity. Even ignoring the fact that it was developed by a year seven student, Positive Penguins has been a huge success on the app store, selling over 20,000 copies before Sara had even submitted it for the contest deadline.
The Tech Girl Movement has been hugely successful since its launch on International Women’s Day last year, and this could be attributed to its highly personal beginnings. Jenine said that she has aimed the movement at her younger self, creating the programs that she wishes she could have been involved in when she was much younger. Her superhero alter-ego reflects this throwback to her young self, calling her heroine ‘Jewella’ after her childhood love of designing and making jewellery. Thanks to Jewella’s super influence, the future of both our STEM industries and our young girls is looking bright — even if most of them won’t be graduating from university for at least another decade.