A CLASSROOM of superheroes is the vision of Tech Girls Movement founder, Brisbane's Jenine Beekhuyzen, who says her mission will only become possible with earlier investment into STEM.
Beekhuyzen's movement has been encouraging young girls to think about being tech entrepreneurs and leaders long before the government's pledge to the cause this week.
Communications minister Malcolm Turnbull has called IT skills "the new kind of literacy" developed through a focus on science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM).
Turnbull's comments are in response toAustralia's Digital Pulse, a recent report by the Australian Computer Society and Deloitte which states an additional 100,000 ICT workers are needed in Australia over the next six years to keep up with industry demand.
His comments are also in line with research published by the Committee for Economic Development of Australia, which has found almost 40 per cent of jobs that exist today have at least a moderate likelihood of being replaced by machines and software in the next 10 to 15 years.
The rate of Australian school students, particularly females, participating in STEM subjects is ironically significantly declining as we move further into the information age.
Beekhuyzen, who has been named as a female rising star in ICT by the Sydney Morning Herald, sees this firsthand in the classes she teaches at the University of Queensland and Griffith University.
She recalls statistics that over the past 10 years, the proportion of women studying IT degrees in Queensland has fallen from 23 to 15 per cent. Nationally, there are about 27,000 female IT students.
The imbalance drove Beekhuyzen to create the Tech Girls Movement.
"I teach first year IT at university and at the moment have only two girls in my class - but the ones who come through always do amazing," she says.
"We all know diversity helps us make better decisions and therefore create better technology, the industry knows this especially, but the industry is struggling to actually hire a diverse workforce.
"At Tech Girls Movement, we are passionate about breaking through the stereotypes of the typical IT male and creating new and positive archetypes that young girls can relate to."
In Beekhuyzen's view, the problem is just that girls aren't exposed to STEM careers early enough.
"It's never too young to start," she says.
"Most programs focus on years 11 and 12 but I actually think that's too late as girls have already made their career decisions - we need to go back to year 4 or younger before they start making any subject choices.
"It's not just about having technical skills - of course they are important - but there are so many roles outside of this still in technology such as management and design."
As such, Beekhuyzen's non-profit is actively encouraging young girls to consider technology and engineering careers through school program integration, book distribution and an annual 'Superhero Search', which was relaunched this week in partnership with Silicon Valley-based Technovation and is open to primary and secondary students.
Beekhuyzen's latest book, Tech Girls Are Superheroes, is the product of a successful Kickstarter campaign in 2013 that raised $75,000 and afforded the production of 20,000 copies that she has since been distributing for free.
"Tech Girls Are Superheroes is based on research myself and colleagues have been working on for at least the last decade, through which we decided it would be effective to inspire young girls by using superhero characters, as we all have inherent superpowers, or at least the little ego inside of us likes to think that," says Beekhuyzen.
"The book is an illustrated anthology where I profile 26 women in the industry who have inspired me on all sorts of levels and given up there time to write their own short fiction story with a little reality thrown into the mix.
"From the feedback, we know we have struck a chord - now we just need to dial up the volume."
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