Women in STEM, The Future Digital Landscape: Dr. Jenine Beekhuyzen Sets The Scene

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In today’s world, digitalisation has impacted almost every industry and fundamentally changed the way we work.  Advancements in technology and investments in artificial intelligence have stimulated job creation, and whilst it appears to be a great time to be working in STEM, jobs are being created faster than employers can fill them. Navigating this talent shortage is a challenge and many employers are now looking towards untapped talent pools to fill the gaps.  Employing women, one of STEM’s most underrepresented groups, could just be the answer.

Considering my years as an undergraduate student in multimedia studies at university, as a female I was without doubt in the minority attending the foundational technology classes required of the degree.  Whilst this might have proved a challenge for some, I continued to forge on in the field and during my honours year had the good fortune of meeting Dr. Jenine Beekhuyzen, a renowned futurist and creator of the Tech Girls Are Superheroes campaign and founder and CEO of the Tech Girls Movement Foundation.  Jenine was among a handful of women undertaking their PhD studies in information systems at the time, their work and commitment to STEM filtered down to all those following in their footsteps, they were influential to so many of us in those early days.

Presenting at Blackboard’s Teaching and Learning Conference to be held in Sydney in August this year, I had the opportunity to recently speak to Jenine and hear why her background in research, gender studies and technology over the last 15 years has given her insight as to why girls are under-represented in these careers and what it takes for women to succeed in this industry.

Dr. Jenine Beekhuyzen, you have worked in the tech space for many years, what experiences led to you to create the Tech Girls Movement Foundation and want to empower women to enter STEM?

Jenine:  

For me it was being one of a few girls in my own IT degree at Griffith University in Queensland.  At the time there were just a handful of girls in the course and we really did stand out.  We were up against the boys; however, we made the most of that in any way we could and worked together. 

I was very fortunate in that two of my female lecturers were conducting research on ‘women in tech’ at the time, back in the late 90s they were true pioneers in this area.  They took us under their wing and were role models, incredibly supportive and encouraged us to join their research project.  We were initially tasked with the job of interviewing some high school students which in turn led to becoming mentors to these students.

This was instrumental in the path I took following graduation as I partnered with the Queensland Government, universities and other organisations to run events specifically for girls with a keen interest and affinity in technology.  Whilst this work was rewarding, it was frustrating that these events were limited to only one day, and it was clear that more time and energy were needed.  

During that period, I was also teaching first year students technology subjects at university, with only two to three girls in a class of about 30-40 students.  The girls crushed the boys in terms of results but unfortunately by the end of the semester most of them felt isolated in a male heavy course and transferred to other faculties.  The tech industry at the time was looking to employ women, with fourth year technology graduates being highly sought after.  Clearly, the numbers were not there to support this demand given so many were considering a different career path.  

Time and again, research tell us that girls ‘opt’ out of STEM at the age of six years old.  You have to ask why is that.  I believe it is mostly a “marketing” issue, related to how STEM is presented to girls. The good news is that we can fix the problem.  The focus now needs to be placed on the next generation of tech girls.  

A number of years ago, I authored a book called ‘Tech Girls are Chic’. It featured women in the tech sector with each contributing a short fictional story about themselves.  In six years we distributed 20,000 books and teachers were using the book as a classroom resource to help advise girls on a tech career path.  This went way beyond what I would have expected and following a couple of encounters with girls studying technology at university because they were inspired by this book, it made me realise there was far more to be done.  

It was at this point that I started the Tech Girls Movement Foundation to further advance gender equality in the tech sector. Whilst our primary goal has remained the same – to engage 10,000 girls in STEM entrepreneurship by 2020 – we have achieved so much more along the way, including the Foundation’s youth entrepreneurship program Tech Girls Are Superheroes.  We’ve been running the program now for five years – ICT outreach to schools and an annual national competition for teams of young girls to pitch and develop an app to solve a problem in the community.  It is very clear girls thrive in competitive environments, in the last year alone we’ve had 3,000 girls compete and have reached far more through the distribution of our free Tech Girls Are Superheroes books. 

The digital world we live in is changing so rapidly, how do you encourage girls into technology when the jobs they may one day hold don’t currently exist?

Jenine:

The way I approach this is around problem solving and what schools now term as computational thinking.  It is never about the tools of the day per se, rather about the decisions you make in how to utilise those tools to solve an issue.  For instance, how do you use AI systems to write the most unbiased systems regardless of how you might do that technically?  That is what I believe makes our program different to other youth programs in the marketplace where the majority are focused on coding. 

There is an online bot called ‘Will Robots Take My Job’ which is based on a study conducted a few years ago by academics Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael A. Osborne with the goal to identify the impact computerisation would have on certain jobs. According to the bot, 48 percent of programming jobs will disappear in the next five years due to AI and automation. If you think about it, teaching coding is not that dissimilar to teaching handwriting.  Being able to handwrite doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to be a great novelist and similarly, being able to code doesn’t mean you’re going to be a great coder or computer scientist.  However important it may be, coding is just a means and not really a long-term career objective.  

Entrepreneurship and being able to solve problems are of far more value.  More often than not, the first subject taught in any technology degree at university is programming.  This is not necessary, for instance in Tech Girls Are Superheroes, we don’t touch on programming until at least week five or six.  By that point we’ve defined the problem, conducted the required research and completed a plan.  The task of coding is not necessarily inherently appealing to girls, you want to code to solve a problem not coding for coding sake.

Nicole:

I would agree with you Jenine, the concept of the tool of the day is really redundant.  To the amazement of some in the industry, I did not take a single SQL or database class at university and yet here I am working in the learning analytics space, managing complete data warehouses and writing significant amounts of code.  My simple response to this is coding skills were not required to get to this point, what was needed is logic, reasoning and problem-solving skills, with a little bit of patience thrown in for good measure!

What does the ideal culture look like if we want to encourage girls into technology roles?

Jenine:

I think it’s about valuing women, the role that we play and recognising that we have different yet complementary skills to men.  Creating an environment where women and men are working alongside one another to build a better future for everyone.  For this to take place we need to value all types of diversity and enable everyone to be part of that decision-making and solution-building process; being in a position of co-creating that together. 

Mentorship is hugely important whether it is formal or informal.  We need to surround ourselves with women where we can and that’s why finding support groups such as Business Chicks or whatever your industry group, is key.  Creating those connections and forming a mass contributes to the feeling you are part of something.  Certainly, don’t discount involving men either in forming your professional network. We need champions in this life and to have someone, male or female, who will stand up and support you when you’re not in the room can be a powerful thing and will help move this movement of ‘women in tech’ forward.

Nicole:

That is true, I’ve had great female role models throughout my personal life and schooling.  They were mentors not because they were women but because they were relatable and insightful.  They told stories, injected humour and shared their experiences: they showed me that leaders lead, and that gender should not be a consideration. 

This is something I am really passionate about in Blackboard.  We have amazing women in this space and in the APAC region we are doing a lot of work to highlight their achievements, encourage these women to be proud of their skills and promote them to the wider LMS community.

The Australian Government earlier this year announced it will develop a National Regional, Rural and Remote Education Strategy to drive increased participation in post-secondary education. In what way do you see the Tech Girls Are Superheroes program supporting this strategy to allow girls outside of the metropolitan areas to learn more about careers in STEM and gain the necessary skills?

Jenine:

Our program is designed to be delivered online so our goal is to give access to girls across Australia and New Zealand no matter where they are located.  Australia is such a vast country and we have come across schools without an internet connection, but these schools find a way to make it happen, often at the local library.  It is truly amazing what some of these girls are capable of.  

Teams are mentored for an hour a week over the 12-week competition by a woman who works in technology and who is often locally-based.  Each week I send out a three-minute video and the curriculum is online for the teams to work through at their own pace. 

At the end of the twelve weeks, the teams submit their projects that include a business plan, pitch video and demo video of their app. They are judged based on these items and from there, state and national winners are chosen.  The following year, we take a few of the winning teams to Silicon Valley to pitch their app to various tech companies.  This would be an incredible opportunity for any young girl but to those who come from some of Australia’s smallest or most remote regions this is a once in a lifetime experience.

The tech industry has come a long way since you first started at university and you’ve certainly contributed to its progression here in Australia but where do you now see our digital future?

Jenine:

First and foremost, I’d like to see a kinder future. One where technology is not used to isolate people but to bring people together more.  History shows things do go in cycles, at present we are so very individually focussed, and I’d like to think we’ll circle back around to community again because we’ll have no choice.  People function better when they are living together as a connected society, it’s been proven that there are less heart attacks in this world when there are three generations under the same roof and it’s a much kinder world. I don’t necessarily advocate for using technology to extend life for the sake of it but if using it to make our lives better where we are happier and healthier, I’m completely on board.

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