Paving a way for women in engineering

Spanning the East River in New York City, the Brooklyn Bridge stands as an engineering and cultural icon. Upon its completion in 1883, it was the longest suspension bridge in the world and the first to use steel-wire construction. At a ceremony marking the bridge’s opening, those gathered lavished praise on someone whose name was conspicuous for the era, Emily Roebling.

She was the wife of the bridge’s chief engineer Washington Roebling, who had inherited the role from his father following a survey accident. Soon after construction commenced, Washington developed “caisson disease” rendering him bed ridden and unable to oversee the project. With financiers pushing to dismiss Washington, Emily took over her husband’s role, overseeing construction, negotiating with government and private sector interests all while staving off opportunistic competitors.

More than an envoy for her husband, she studied areas of maths and engineering, amassing the knowledge needed to manage the project for more than a decade.

Fast-forward almost 130 years and a woman’s name in engineering remains conspicuous, with stories of achievement like Emily’s few and far between. In the United States, engineering remains the industry of lowest representation for women at only 11%. In Australia, the proportion is just under 10%. In Australian universities, women account for less than 15% of engineering degree enrolments. The figure is even lower for related technology courses and diplomas. It’s a disparity that has remained steady for the past decade prompting Marita Cheng, an Engineering and Computer Science student from the University of Melbourne to act.

In 2008 she founded Robogals, an organisation that has since spawned 17 chapters across Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom, delivering workshops to over 3,000 girls in Australia. This week, Marita was named Young Australian of the Year, recognising her work introducing young women to opportunities in engineering. I spoke to her shortly after the award ceremony.

“One of the biggest issues is the cultural issue… there’s misconceptions about what it is to be an engineer,” Marita said. “It’s [perceived as] all about hard hats and dirty, messy work, but it isn’t really like that. It’s creative, it’s very logical… there’s teamwork.”

In a 2008 report for the Australian Council of Engineering Deans, Emeritus Professor Robin King highlighted the need to improve public understanding of engineering, with a particular focus on engagement in schools. This is where Robogals focus lies, fostering a unique dynamic for girls through workshops and career talks.

“Marita’s work has provided young women with a valuable insight into the world of engineering in a hands-on and interactive way,” CEO of Engineers Australia Stephen Durkin said. “Robogals has had a profound effect on raising the overall awareness of engineering and has provided the stepping stones to lead more women to pursue their studies in the areas of engineering and technology.

Marita’s no stranger to success. She’s currently studying at University on a Paterson Scholarship and has been a recipient of the Nancy Fairfax Churchill and IYF Youth Action Net Fellowships along with the Anita Borg Change Agent Award. She’s no a stranger to the limelight either, having appeared on the ABC’s New Inventors program as a panelist.

Asked what qualities she would attribute her achievements to, her answer is simple. Being “passionate” and “working hard” are vital, as is working with “a fantastic group of people.” It’s those she works with, “hundreds of volunteers” that her answers invariably turn to rather than speaking of herself.

“I’m really grateful I have so many people who I work together with to create what Robogals has achieved,” Marita said smiling.

It’s a work ethic and modesty that echoes many successful figures in engineering and technology, not least Apple’s chief of design and engineering Sir Jonathon Ive whose 70hr weeks and constant references to “we” rather than “I” have become trademarks of his success. Coincidently Marita cites late Apple founder and close friend of Ive’s Steve Jobs among the people she finds inspiring.

In September last year Robogals established a chapter at the ANU run by women from the Engineering faculty. Already sporting a large membership and having raised enough funds to commence running lessons, Marita expressed pride in their work. “We’re really proud of our ANU chapter, they’ve done such an amazing job.”

Published in Woroni (ANU Student Media) – January 2012