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Marita Cheng 100 Women of Influence

25 September 2013

Marita Cheng was an Australian Financial Review and Westpac 100 Women of Influence awardee in 2012. Here she speaks about setting up Robogals and why she's suffered Imposter Syndrome.

Robogals introduces girls to science, engineering and technology and inspires them to consider a career in the field. One of its education initiatives is a school-based program targeted at girls aged between 10 and 14.

“Engaging with young girls is important,” says Marita Cheng, Robogals founder.

“They’re yet to choose their senior year subjects and we get to dump all their old stereotypes around what an engineering career means by proving to them it’s not what they thought.

 “If the organisation was to work and thrive we needed community. I emailed and approached all the universities in Australia to get them on board. Then, on exchange for a year in London, I began our London chapter,” explains Marita.

 By proving the process worked nationally and internationally, Marita garnered the support she needed to continue and Robogals – inspired by her Internet user name, Robogal – continues to dominate her life.

 In 2012 in the midst of her studies – as a mechatronics, engineering and computer science student at Melbourne University – Marita was named Young Australian of the Year. She was also the joint winner, with Yassmin Abdel-Magied (another female engineer), in the Westpac/AFR 100 Women of Influence Young Leader category.

A dizzying year of media interviews, speaking invitations, events and conferences nationally and internationally, followed. In fact, life was so busy for Marita she was forced to reduce her university subject load during the year and will now graduate at the end of 2013.

In early 2013 she was in the UK attending and running the annual Robogals conference for UK executive committee members, before flying off to New York and then to California to do the same or her US executive committee members.

“The conference is called SINE – Seminars Inducting New Executive committee members,” she explains. “We have one in each region every year. New chapters are invited along to set up, established chapters come along to skills-build and this year we’re really concentrating on building our international presence.” 

Robogals now has 17 chapters and according to Robogals’ records in Australia, the organisation has introduced engineering to more than 7500 girls through 332 school-based robotics workshops since 2008.

The number is even greater, explains Marita, if other touch points are included: Robogals Rural & Regional Ambassadors programme, Robogals Science Challenge, career talks and expo attendances, for example.

"You know,” she adds, a little awestruck by the figures, “70,000 engineers retired in Australia in 2011 and only 45,000 graduates were available.”

 If you were picking a career path that statistic would appear a no brainer, but engineering has a dirty, hard-hat wearing image that can put people off.

 “It’s not like the stereotype at all,” says Marita, conceding, however, that it is still a very blokey area, which is why her efforts to change the image and the gender balance are important.

Riddled with unconscious bias when it comes to the employment process, and limited by the way men, women and society view the job and who should be doing it, Marita will tell you that even her own mother wasn’t pleased when she told her she would be studying engineering.

It’s why Robogals’ initiatives to correct the balance and change the attitudes in engineering and technology, including its LEGO robotics lessons; its Parents and Daughters Science Challenge, which gets girls and their parents from across Australia to videotape and submit a science experiment online, and the way it works with teachers to target girls to think differently about engineering and technology, are making a difference.

“For Robogals to be sustainable, though” explains Marita, “we needed to form a board of directors and appoint an executive to run the organisation. Jan Owen, who was also one of the Women of Influence winners, mentored me around the options. It’s been invaluable.

“I am on the board now, and we’ve appointed a new CEO and COO for the organisation. I will continue helping Robogals but in a more hands-off way.”

Robogals has also secured partner support: groups such as Beck Engineering, CSIRO, Leighton Holdings, GE Energy, Google, NICTA and SMSGlobal, are already on board. In 2013, Australian Constructors Association, Abi Group, Modern Teaching Aids, McConnell Dowell, Deloitte, WorleyParsons, DSTO, ConocoPhillips, IET and IBM also joined.

“I was at a conference in the US, the Grace Hopper Celebration for Women in Computing, which is a really big deal in the States and a great learning opportunity. I’d met this girl who was telling me about the keynote speaker from the previous year. She’d spoken about Imposter Syndrome, and I thought,” explains Marita of her light-bulb moment, “hang on, that sounds familiar.”  

People with Imposter Syndrome are convinced they’re frauds and don’t deserve their success. According to psychologists, the syndrome is prevalent in young people who achieve success and in academics.

“It was such a relief to have an explanation for what I’d been feeling,” says Marita, who now has the tools to develop coping strategies.

Proof of success she could dismiss as “luck, timing, even as a result of deceiving others into thinking she was more intelligent and competent than she believed herself to be”.

“I’m comfortable when the feelings surface now. I recognise them for what they are and reject them.”

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