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Women @ Work: Marita Cheng

01 March 2013

Student based and run by volunteers, Robogals introduces girls to science, engineering and technology and inspires them to consider a career in the field through a number of education initiatives, including a school-based program targeted at girls aged between 10 and 14. 


“I realised the importance of engaging with young girls the moment we began,” says Marita Cheng, the founder of the not-for-profit organisation.


“Young women are yet to choose their senior year subjects, so still have the opportunity to go down the engineering pathway and they get to dump all the old stereotypes around what an engineering career means because we show them it’s not what they thought.


“I also realised early on, our chapters needed a community to thrive. I emailed and approached all the universities in Australia to get them on board. Then, on exchange for a year in London, I started up our London chapter, using my own savings to expand Robogals to the UK. 


“I proved the process could work nationally and internationally, and got a lot of support, something I hadn’t had initially. The Tokyo Institute of Technology, the best university for technology in Japan, came on board in 2011 and this year our focus is on our international chapters and building them and their reach.”


Marita, who grew up in Cairns, is a 23-year-old mechatronics, engineering and computer science student at Melbourne University. She was to have graduated at the end of 2012, but Robogals – inspired by her Internet user name, Robogal – has created a life of its own for her.


In 2012 in the midst of her studies – and in large part due to the success of her Robogals concept – Marita was named Young Australian of the Year. Later that same year she became the joint winner, with Yassmin Abdel-Magied (another female engineer), in the Westpac/AFR 100 Women of Influence Young Leader category. Marita has been awarded two fellowships, the Nancy Fairfax Churchill and an International Youth Foundation (YouthActionNet) as well as an Anita Borg Change Agent award.


A dizzying year of media interviews, speaking invitations, events and conferences nationally and internationally, followed her Young Australian win. In fact, life was so busy for Marita she was forced to reduce her university subject load in 2012 and will now graduate at the end of this year (2013).


Ruby caught up with Marita in the UK where she was attending and running the annual Robogals conference for UK executive committee members before she flew off to New York and then to California to do the same there for her US executive committee members.


“The conference is called SINE and stands for Seminars Inducting New Executive committee members,” she tells Ruby. “We have a conference in each region every year and invite new chapters along to set up, and old chapters along to skills-build.” 


Robogals now has 17 chapters. Here in Australia, according to Robogals’ records, the organisation has introduced the possibility of engineering to more than 7500 girls through 332 robotics workshops since 2008.


“It is,” explains Marita, “an even greater number if we include our other touch points: the Robogals Rural & Regional Ambassadors programme, the Robogals Science Challenge, our career talks and exhibiting at expos.”


"You know,” she adds, “70,000 engineers retired in Australia in 2011 and only 45,000 graduates were available.”


Such a statistic would appear a no brainer if you were picking a career path, but engineering comes tagged as a dirty, hard-hat wearing game and that puts 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 balance are so important.


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


“She used to think of it as a dirty job and not something a woman should do,” says Marita, a hint of laughter in her voice.


LEGO robotics lessons; a Parents and Daughters Science Challenge, which gets girls and their parents from across Australia to videotape and submit a science experiment online; working with teachers so they can target getting girls excited about engineering and technology, these all form part of Robogals brief to right the balance and change the attitudes in engineering and technology. 


“Making Robogals truly sustainable,” explains Marita, “has also meant forming a board of directors and appointing executives to run the organisation. Jan Owen, who was also one of the Women of Influence winners, mentored me a lot about the options and it’s proving invaluable. I am a board member and we’ve appointed a new CEO and COO for the organisation. I will continue helping Robogals but in a more hands-off way.


“We also have some fantastic partners supporting us; people such as Beck Engineering, CSIRO, Leighton Holdings, GE Energy, Google, NICTA and SMSGlobal, and this year, Australian Constructors Association, Abi Group, Modern Teaching Aids, McConnell Dowell, Deloitte, WorleyParsons, DSTO, ConocoPhillips, IET and IBM also joined.”


And how has she developed personally through the experience?


“I was at a conference in the US a year ago, the Grace Hopper Celebration for Women in Computing, which is a really big deal in the States and I was talking with a girl who’d been before and who’d said she’d really liked the keynote speaker from the previous year,” begins Marita.


“Her speech was on Imposter Syndrome,” Marita continues, explaining that many people suffer the syndrome but that it is especially prevalent in academics and graduate students and among women.


Her new found friend explained the syndrome to her, “and I just thought, that’s what I’ve been going through for ages now. 


“It was such a relief to have an explanation for what I’d been feeling, and then to think if an explanation existed, surely there must be strategies for coping with it.”


People with Imposter Syndrome are convinced they’re frauds and don’t deserve their success, and according to psychologists: “Proof of success is dismissed as luck, timing, or as a result of deceiving others into thinking they’re more intelligent and competent than they believe themselves to be.”


“I know what it is when it happens now,” says Marita, “and I’m very comfortable when the feelings come up to recognise them for what they are and reject them.”


Photography Victor Yang


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