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See It, Be It: Solving Tech’s Female Representation Problem

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Dr. Jenine Beekhuyzen
CEO and founder of Australia’s Tech Girls Movement

Dr. Jenine Beekhuyzen, CEO and founder of Australia’s Tech Girls Movement Foundation, has dedicated her career to encouraging girls to get involved with technology. Along the way, she’s debunked stereotypes and highlighted the stories of female tech pioneers like Ada Lovelace.

In 1997, I was in the first year of my information technology degree and one of few women in a university theatre filled with eager young guys. I had no prior experience coding, didn’t know the Haskell programming language, and felt alone without other women in the room—how would I ever catch up and compete with my classmates?

It didn’t help that one of my male lecturers publicly declared that “girls can’t program” during a tutorial. I felt outnumbered, incapable, and ready to quit until I met two inspiring female lecturers in my second year. They invited me and the few other women in my program to join their research project on women in technology; we aimed to understand why women “didn’t do” tech and figure out how to bridge that gender gap. Our research developed into school mentoring programs and role modeling events for girls.

The biggest hurdle we encountered in our research was the stereotyping of people in tech. Many ascribed to the stubborn idea that people who worked in, or were otherwise interested in, technology were male nerds—replete with pants up to their armpits and coke-bottle glasses, sitting in the corner with a pizza and no friends. We wanted to change that perception.

In the early 2000s, I began presenting school girls with historic examples of amazing women in technology. From this, the Tech Girls Movement Foundation, a not-for-profit organisation promoting female STEM role models, was born.

Even in 2019, most people cannot name a single women in tech history, so I weave their stories into conversation at any opportunity. My all-time favourite role model to discuss is Ada Lovelace, because she was one of the first people to imagine the possibilities of a computer. Today, she’s known as the first computer programmer—and she didn’t even need a computer to do so!

Image Ada Lovelace Book cover

Ada Lovelace Cracking The Code, Rebel Girls book

I’ve been lucky to read Ada Lovelace Cracks the Code ahead of Ada Lovelace Day on October 8 (this year is the 10th anniversary of Ada Day), and before the book’s official release in November.

Ada was born in London in 1815 to poet Lord Byron and aristocrat Anne Isabella Noel Byron, and society merely expected her to marry well. Instead, she was the first person to envision the computer and the forthcoming digital age. She applied her poet’s brain to a mathematical problem and explained the “analytical engine” in the 1840s. Ada’s story has many great insights for young women: dream big, dream often, and you can do anything!

Ada’s story also made me think about privilege. She was the daughter of prominent members of society and had access to a good education. Her mother encouraged her to study mathematics, which was unusual for a girl in that era. She likely wouldn’t have had the opportunity to meet her inventing partner or study mathematics and science without such privilege.

While Ada is an extraordinary role model for girls, there are many other remarkable women in tech history (many of whom come from less privileged backgrounds) who can also inspire us. Among these rebel girls are women like Katherine Johnson, the American NASA mathematician whose calculations of orbital mechanics were integral to the success of the first and subsequent US crewed spaceflights, whose story was told in the wonderful book and film Hidden Figures.

There is also an entire generation of female technology pioneers who worked as codebreakers in WWII whose work was largely unknown and unheralded. At the famed World War II codebreaking station in England’s Bletchley Park, some 8,000 people (or 75 percent of the workforce) were women. These women were linguists, cryptoanalysts, mathematicians, and crossword geniuses, and collectively contributed to cutting the war short by as much as two years. Likewise in Australia, “ordinary” women like Joan Fairbridge (née Duff) were employed as military cyphers at codebreaking stations.

Given the nature of their work, which involved cracking foreign military codes, this top secret process was not discussed until wartime information became declassified. For most of their lives, these women were unable to speak about their contributions. Fairbridge died in July this year, and kept her wartime profession a secret until Australia Day 2011, when she received the Bletchley Park Commemorative Medal from then-UK Prime Minister David Cameron.

The adage of “if you can see it, you can be it” is so often applied to improving representation in technology and entrepreneurship.

While real-life role models are necessary, how we portray fictional role models in popular culture is of equal importance.

Australia saw a spike in young women enrolling in veterinary school in the 1980s, which may be attributed to Dr. Vicki, a popular character played by the late Penny Cook on the TV soap A Country Practice. Some call this the “Vicki the Vet” effect. Fast forward 15 years, and a similar spike in students studying forensic science can be linked to US crime drama CSI. These trends prove that showing fictionalised women working in STEM leads to real women studying the same subjects.

Yet despite these efforts, we are still facing a decline in the number of girls studying STEM. STEM jobs in Australia are growing at 1.5 times the rate of other jobs in recent years, and boys still outnumber girls 3 to 1 in physics and almost 2 to 1 in advanced math classes. The divide is even greater in the workplace, where women account for only 16 percent of Australia’s STEM-skilled workforce.

I strongly believe that if the successes of codebreaking women and NASA scientists had been celebrated earlier, we would now have more women working in STEM. The Tech Girls Movement Foundation is committed to sharing these lesser-known stories.

I’ve spent 20 years encouraging girls to solve problems using STEM, arts, design thinking, and empathy, and have reached more than 9,000 girls at over 1,000 schools. The Tech Girls Movement Foundation will engage 10,000 girls by 2020 through our STEM entrepreneurship and hands-on programming. I’m very fortunate to have become a role model for so many girls.

Of course, I’m just one of many tech girl evangelists in Australia. There’s Code Camp, Code Club, Vogue Codes, Geek Girls Academy, Code Like a Girl, and then the entrepreneurship evangelists Foundation for Young Australians, Young Change Agents, Future Anything, and many, many more.

A collaborative effort is required to inspire girls to want to pursue STEM and entrepreneurship, because the scale of the challenge is too great for a single organization alone. The Tech Girls Movement’s efforts will be bolstered by the newly-created Academy for Enterprising Girls, an Australian government-supported program which brings together multiple sectors to inspire the next generation of girls in STEM. Essentially, the technology sector has a marketing challenge and this program—designed by girls, for girls—aims to meet it.

Although this is an issue that must be tackled on multiple fronts, representation is key. We need relevant TV shows with relatable female characters who use digital skills to solve problems, not a token goth girl portrayed as a nerdy outsider for laughs. We need to share the stories and achievements of real heroines, from my real-life hero Ada Lovelace to the code-breaking pioneers of Bletchley Park, and the remarkable tech girls of today.

The Academy for Enterprising Girls is partnering with with Rebel Girls. All girls who register their interest in AEG’s workshops and online activities before Nov. 8, 2019 will get the chance to win a two-book pack from the international blockbuster Rebel Girl’s series. The upcoming releases, Ada Lovelace Cracks the Code and Madam CJ Walker Builds a Business, explore the lives and challenges of programming pioneer Ada Lovelace and America’s first self-made millionaire, Sarah Breedlove.

This article was first published on Rebel Girls Boundless

Dr. Jenine Beekhuyzen's Tech Girls Movement is a partner of the Academy for Enterprising Girls.

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